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Aug 10, 2011

Living the dream

It has become one of the cliches of football: player arrives at a club and speaks of his massive respect for the club, having always been a fan and fulfilling a childhood dream with his transfer.

With Romelu Lukaku's arrival at Chelsea, however, there is a difference. In Belgian television program The School of Lukaku, which followed the young star along with his classmates, there was an episode that saw the class visit Stamford Bridge. The clip, now a hit on YouTube, shows Lukaku standing in front of a life size Didier Drogba poster, wearing a No 11 Drogba shirt.

Inside the stadium, Lukaku wants to sit alone, away from his mates, to better savour the moment. He says to the camera: "The only time they will ever see me cry at home is when I play here. Apart from that, never." When his teacher asks him to come back inside with the rest and says he can dream a little more inside, Lukaku answers: "It's not a dream. I will play here. You will see."

The feeling seems to be mutual. Born May 13, 1993, Romelu Menama Lukaku has been on Chelsea's radar since the tender age of 15, when he was literally head and shoulders above his team-mates at Anderlecht's youth academy. Eventually, they look to have got their man for a fee of around €15 million. That not only makes him the second most expensive Belgian player in history - Marouane Fellaini cost €20 million when he went to Everton - but only the fifth 18-year-old ever to command such a price, putting him in the notable company of Wayne Rooney, Pato, Sergio Aguero and Ronaldo.

Lukaku's rise in Belgian football was meteoric. He made his debut with Anderlecht on May 24, 2009, in the second of two test matches to decide the league title between Anderlecht and Standard Liege, given 25 minutes as a substitute. Soon after, in August, he got his first taste of European football, coming on in a Champions League qualifier against French giants Olympique Lyon. In his first proper Belgian league game against Zulte Waregem that same month, Lukaku got his first goal and made Belgium sit up and take notice. Very soon, he made sure his name was known in Europe as well. When Anderlecht beat Ajax 3-1 at the Amsterdam ArenA on December 17, Lukaku scored two goals and made another in a phenomenal display.

By the time then national manager Dick Advocaat picked him to play for his country, Lukaku was top scorer in the Belgian league, with 13 goals out of 21 appearances, having also added a goal to his European tally against Athletic Bilbao.

He would end that first season as top scorer with 15 league goals, plus four in his first season in Europe, with the fourth goal coming against Hamburg. No mean feat for a boy still over two months shy of his 17th birthday. It was enough for Real Madrid to try to get him to come to the Bernabeu. However, his father, Roger Lukaku - himself a former professional football player - urged his son to stay at Anderlecht and finish school first, prompting Jose Mourinho to say: "I wish there were more dads like him."

His first two goals for Belgium came in a 2-0 friendly win in Russia, against the manager who had first selected him, and his second season at Anderlecht brought 16 goals, plus two more in Europe. Now, after scoring one in each of Anderlecht's games so far this season, Lukaku makes his dream move.

"He went completely nuts," his father said. "He put on his new Chelsea shirt and started jumping around the sitting room. It made me realise all over that he is still only 18. That gives him a certain naivety, but that is also a strength, in that he feels the pressure a lot less." Roger Lukaku is happy the whole thing is finally over - "for Romelu, more than anything. It all went on for so long and that made it hard. Now we can all breathe again. Romelu is relieved and happy, but doesn't forget that this is a new challenge. He will have to fight to reach his goals, like every professional football player. I did have my doubts at times that a deal would materialise, but we have known for a couple of days now that it was done. We felt it was important that he would play the last game against KV Mechelen but that took some negotiation with Chelsea, because of the risk of an injury."

Where some football writers and analysts had said that it is most important for Lukaku that he plays as much as possible, Roger agrees with his son that some time to adapt is not a bad thing. "It isn't just any club. It's Chelsea. He has to compete there with big guns like Fernando Torres and Didier Drogba. It will be tough, but he is very young and has nothing to lose. Chelsea's manager has told us Romelu will be third-choice striker after those two and that is ideal. All he can do now is work. I think he will get his chances in the coming season. Chelsea compete at all possible fronts and that means many, many games."

Lukaku, in London for his medical, did not train with Belgium ahead of their friendly against Slovenia on Wednesday. National manager Georges Leekens said of the move: "It's good for everybody. He's off for a great future. This transfer means he will have big responsibilities but he'll be fine. He has coped with pressure tremendously well so far. He can be a real ambassador for Belgian football."

It is true that Lukaku has a wise head on young - and rather broad - shoulders. The fact that he chose to finish school rather than go to Real Madrid is a good example. Since then, he has had a tough time combining school and football. Only last week he said he had been studying until 3am the night before a game for his club. Now he can finally focus on football alone, and can do so at one of the richest clubs in Europe, as a future successor to his greatest idol, Didier Drogba. Having got used to dealing with intense media attention, not even the British tabloids should be a real problem for Lukaku. He lives to play football. Soon he will do so at his dream club. For real.

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