Chelsea was supposed to be the happy return, the second coming at the club he had supported since he was eight. Until Romelu Lukaku started talking of wanting to go back to Inter Milan while he is still playing “at a good enough level.” Meanwhile, he said that every footballer dreams of playing for the three top clubs in football: Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern Munich. And, with his praise of Antonio Conte, he fuelled suggestions they may reunite one day.
Arguably Lukaku’s already infamous Sky Italia interview was him in a nutshell: an intelligent, eloquent, multilingual man unafraid to voice his opinions. He has a track record of making honest but undiplomatic comments when the microphones and cameras are on. Lukaku has always been an independent thinker who is confident in his views. He has rarely toed party lines. Yet those traits can explain why he is not indelibly associated with any of his growing collection of clubs: he is not the loyalist, speaking for the organisation, but the individual, speaking for himself.
Perhaps the problem with his quotes to Sky Italia was not the content as much as the fact he was the one expressing those views. Maybe, as Jamie Carragher argued, he was simply trying to curry favour with Inter fans after leaving. Certainly, many another had concluded that Thomas Tuchel was struggling to find a system and style of play that suited his biggest buy. Few would expect a £98 million player to be happy with life on the bench.
But in the process, Lukaku increased the chance he will become the new Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the restless, outspoken striking wanderer, albeit without his former Manchester United colleague’s vast medal collection. In an environment when most high-grade players stay an elite club for several seasons, often the best years of their career, he seems to be forever considering his next move: in 2020, he said, he could have left Inter for Manchester City. Lukaku’s wanderlust means he is likelier to attract bids. Now, and while Tuchel has ruled out a January transfer, it seems more probable his second stint at Chelsea will be relatively brief.
Lukaku can represent a conundrum. He is one of the best and most prolific strikers of his generation. At 28, he has already scored 326 goals for club and country. For a decade, however, his only club honour was the Belgian league title he won with Anderlecht as a teenager. Powering Inter to last season’s Scudetto had the feel of a seismic achievement, but if the Nerazzurri’s financial problems were a cause of his departure, it nevertheless felt typical that he left. He did two seasons at United, too, and two as a regular for Anderlecht. Two years, whether ending in triumph or disappointment, can feel the Lukaku cycle.
There is only one club where he has lasted longer as a first-choice, and even then they only owned him for three of the four seasons he played for them. It is eminently possible that Lukaku will end his career having scored more goals for Everton than any other club. It is probable that he will retire with more for Belgium than anyone else. His 68 goals for his country is more than double the previous record and only 19 behind his tally for Everton. He feels the likeliest scorer to become the third centurion in the history of international football. Maybe there is a paradox that the most expensive player ever, in terms of cumulative transfer fees, will be defined by his goals in a type of the game where there are no multi-million pound deals, but Belgium has provided the only continuity in an ever-changing career.
And maybe a famously two-footed player’s metaphorical itchy feet will cost him legendary status at any of his employers. At United or Chelsea or even Inter, who had gone 11 years without silverware, the greats don’t tend to come and go in two seasons. They have a bigger body of work. By the time Lukaku hangs up his much-travelled boots, his will be considerable. It could feature more than 500 goals. But if they have come in the colours of so many teams, Lukaku may forever remain his own man, rather than any one club’s.
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