Romelu Lukaku, who is currently representing Belgium at the ongoing FIFA World Cup in Russia, has shared a very emotional story about his childhood and how his family lived in abject poverty.
In an interview with The Players Tribune, Lukaku talked about his struggle growing up as a black footballer in Belgium and how he vowed to be the bet player ever in the country.
Read his full emotional story below:
“I remember the exact moment I knew we were broke. I can still picture my mum at the refrigerator and the look on her face.
I was six years old, and I came home for lunch during our break at school. My mum had the same thing on the menu every single day: Bread and milk. When you’re a kid, you don’t even think about it. But I guess that’s what we could afford.
Then this one day I came home, and I walked into the kitchen, and I saw my mum at the refrigerator with the box of milk, like normal. But this time she was mixing something in with it. She was shaking it all up, you know? I didn’t understand what was going on. Then she brought my lunch over to me, and she was smiling like everything was cool. But I realized right away what was going on.
She was mixing water in with the milk. We didn’t have enough money to make it last the whole week. We were broke. Not just poor, but broke.
My father had been a pro footballer, but he was at the end of his career and the money was all gone. The first thing to go was the cable TV. No more football. No more Match of the Day. No signal.
Then I’d come home at night and the lights would be shut off. No electricity for two, three weeks at a time.
Then I’d want to take a bath, and there would be no hot water. My mum would heat up a kettle on the stove, and I’d stand in the shower splashing the warm water on top of my head with a cup.
There were even times when my mum had to “borrow” bread from the bakery down the street. The bakers knew me and my little brother, so they’d let her take a loaf of bread on Monday and pay them back on Friday.
I knew we were struggling. But when she was mixing in water with the milk, I realized it was over, you know what I mean? This was our life.
I didn’t say a word. I didn’t want her to stress. I just ate my lunch. But I swear to God, I made a promise to myself that day. It was like somebody snapped their fingers and woke me up. I knew exactly what I had to do, and what I was going to do.
I couldn’t see my mother living like that. Nah, nah, nah. I couldn’t have that.
People in football love to talk about mental strength. Well, I’m the strongest dude you’re ever going to meet. Because I remember sitting in the dark with my brother and my mom, saying our prayers, and thinking, believing, knowing … it’s going to happen.
I kept my promise to myself for a while. But then some days I’d come home from school and find my mum crying. So I finally told her one day, “Mum, it’s gonna change. You’ll see. I’m going to play football for Anderlecht, and it’s going to happen soon. We’ll be good. You won’t have to worry anymore.”
I was six.
I asked my father, “When can you start playing professional football?”
He said, “Sixteen.”
I said, “O.K., sixteen then.”
It was going to happen. Period.
Let me tell you something — every game I ever played was a Final. When I played in the park, it was a Final. When I played during break in kindergarten, it was a Final. I’m dead-ass serious. I used to try to tear the cover off the ball every time I shot it. Full power. We weren’t hitting R1, bro. No finesse shot. I didn’t have the new FIFA. I didn’t have a Playstation. I wasn’t playing around. I was trying to kill you.
When I started growing taller, some of the teachers and the parents would be stressing me. I’ll never forget the first time I heard one of the adults say, “Hey, how old are you? What year were you born?”
I’m like, What? Are you serious?
When I was 11 years old, I was playing for the Lièrse youth team, and one of the parents from the other team literally tried to stop me from going on the pitch. He was like, “How old is this kid? Where is his I.D.? Where is he from?”
I thought, Where am I from? What? I was born in Antwerp. I’m from Belgium.
My dad wasn’t there, because he didn’t have a car to drive to my away games. I was all alone, and I had to stand up for myself. I went and got my I.D. from my bag and showed it to all the parents, and they were passing it around inspecting it, and I remember the blood just rushing through me … and I thought, “Oh, I’m gonna kill your son even more now. I was already going to kill him, but now I’m gonna destroy him. You’re gonna drive the boy home crying now.”
I wanted to be the best footballer in Belgian history. That was my goal. Not good. Not great. The best. I played with so much anger, because of a lot of things … because of the rats running around in our apartment … because I couldn’t watch the Champions League … because of how the other parents used to look at me.
I was on a mission.
When I was 12, I scored 76 goals in 34 games.
I scored them all wearing my dad’s shoes. Once our feet got to be the same size, we used to share.
One day I called up my grandfather — my mum’s dad. He was one of the most important people in my life. He was my connection back to Congo, where my mum and dad are from. So I was on the phone with him one day, and I said, “Yeah, I’m doing really well. I scored 76 goals, and we won the league. The big teams are noticing me.”
And usually, he always wanted to hear about my football. But this time it was strange. He said, “Yeah, Rom. Yeah, that’s great. But can you do me a favor?”
I said, “Yeah, what is it?”
He said, “Can you look after my daughter, please?”
I remember being so confused. Like, what’s Grandad on about?
I said, “Mum? Yeah, we’re cool. We’re O.K.”
He said, “No, promise me. Can you promise me? Just look after my daughter. Just look after her for me, O.K.?”
I said, “Yeah, Granddad. I got it. I promise you.”
Five days later he passed away. And then I understood what he really meant.
It makes me so sad to think about, because I just wish that he could have lived another four years to see me play for Anderlecht. To see that I kept my promise, you know? To see that everything was going to be O.K.
I told my mum that I would make it at 16.
I was late by 11 days.
May 24, 2009.
The playoff final. Anderlecht vs. Standard Liège.
Lukaku: To me, every game was a final.
That was the craziest day of my life. But we have to back up for a minute. Because at the start of the season, I was barely playing for the Anderlecht U-19s. The coach had me coming off the bench. I’m like, “How the hell am I going to sign a pro contract on my 16th birthday if I’m still on the bench for the U-19s?”
So I made a bet with our coach.
I told him, “I’ll guarantee you something. If you actually play me, I’m going to score 25 goals by December.”
He laughed. He literally laughed at me.
I said, “Let’s make a bet then.”
He said, “O.K., but if you don’t score 25 by December, you’re going to the bench.”
I said, “Fine, but if I win, you’re going to clean all the minivans that take the players home from training.”
He said, “O.K., it’s a deal.”
I said, “And one more thing. You have to make pancakes for us every day.”
He said, “O.K., fine.”
That was the dumbest bet that man ever made.
I had 25 by November. We were eating pancakes before Christmas, bro.
Let that be a lesson. You don’t play around with a boy who’s hungry!
I signed my pro contract with Anderlecht on my birthday, May 13. Went straight out and bought the new FIFA and a cable package. It was already the end of the season, so I was at home chilling. But the Belgian league was crazy that year, because Anderlecht and Standard Liege had finished tied on points. So there was a two-leg playoff to decide the title.
During the first leg, I’m at home watching on TV like a fan.
Then the day before the second leg, I get a phone call from the coach of the reserves.
“Hello, Rom. What are you doing?”
“About to go play football in the park.”
“No, no, no, no, no. Pack your bags. Right now.”
“What? What did I do?”
“No, no, no. You need to get to the stadium right now. The first team wants you now.”
“Yo …. What?! Me?!”
“Yeah, you. Come now.”
I literally sprinted into my dad’s bedroom and was like, “Yo! Get your ass up right now! We gotta go, man!”
He’s like, “Huh? What? Go where?”
I’m like, “ANDERLECHT, MAN.”
I’ll never forget, I showed up to the stadium, and I like pretty much ran into the dressing room and the kitman said, “O.K., kid, what number do you want?”
And I said, “Give me number 10.”
The kitman said, “O.K., kid, what number do you want?” And I said, “Give me number 10.”
Hahahaha! I don’t know. I was too young to be scared I guess.
He was like, “Academy players have to take 30 and above.”
I said, “O.K., well, three plus six equals nine, and that’s a cool number, so give me 36.”
That night at the hotel, the senior players made me sing a song for them at dinner. I can’t even remember what I picked. My head was spinning.
The next morning, my friend literally knocked on the door of my house to see if I wanted to play football and my mum was like, “He’s out playing.”