On June 25, 1986, Diego Maradona scored twice against Belgium in Mexico City’s Azteca Stadium. Thirty-one years and 363 days later, Romelu Lukaku became the first player since Maradona to score twice in consecutive World Cup matches. Panama and Tunisia might be the two weakest teams in Group G, but you just see if Lukaku cares. He is now alongside Cristiano Ronaldo in the race for the Golden Boot.
This was a better Belgium display than against Panama, a laboured, sluggish, get-the-job-done opening victory, but it was still one built in Roberto Martinez’s image. Martinez is a pleasant, forward-thinking manager, but an emphatic optimist. Taken to its extreme, optimism becomes stubbornness mixed with naivety.
Belgium were cavalier, free-flowing in attack but far more open defensively than against Panama. They allowed their opponents to take 16 shots and had 23 of their own as we watched the most liberating World Cup group game so far.
The accusation is that Martinez has created the riddle with no answer. If the attack fires, the defence is exposed. If the defence keeps it tight, the attack is blunted. The first ten days of this tournament have proved that there is no team without flaws and so little reason for fear, but a more proficient coach might still expose Martinez’s own deficiencies.
Tunisia are a more attacking team than Panama but were also braver than against England – needing a win to have any realistic hope of progression left them no option. That Kevin de Bruyne the space in central midfield to dance and delight like a firefly. Eden Hazard was given more space but less physical treatment than Panama applied, and he too took full advantage. Hazard scored more than once in an international match for only the second time.
De Bruyne and Hazard are symbols and leaders of their club sides, the two best players for the two most recent Premier League champions. But the headlines still belong to a striker who has now scored 40 international goals. Lukaku’s total is bettered by only ten players at this tournament. Their ages in full: 38, 37, 36, 33, 32, 31, 31, 30, 29, 26; Lukaku is the youngest of all.
Neymar aside, Lukaku is unrivalled at his age. At the same stage of his career, Cristiano Ronaldo had scored 22 goals, while Lionel Messi had 26 and the great Gerd Muller had 30. Lukaku has scored more times in his last 20 internationals than any other current Belgian international has in his career. He has a ten-goal lead at the top of Belgium’s all-time goalscorer list, and it is increasing. A reminder: Lukaku turned 25 last month.
“People in football love to talk about mental strength. Well, I’m the strongest dude you’re ever going to meet.”
That was only one of many memorable lines in Lukaku’s interview on Players’ Tribune this week, showing maturity far above his years when discussing racism, poverty and loss and how each has shaped him. For those who still see footballers as circus animals there to enjoyed but not heard, or robots programmed only to perform, Lukaku’s revelations should persuade otherwise. This World Cup is just another step on his journey.
It’s difficult to doubt Lukaku’s words on mental strength. Those who boast it are often guilty of protesting too much, examine the evidence. While others are praised for what they do, the focus for Lukaku has perennially been on what he doesn’t and isn’t; as a child in Brussels and Lierse and as an adult in London and Manchester. But he is finding answers to every question.
Not a complete striker? Look at the goal record and chances created for club and country. Lazy and doesn’t work hard enough off the ball? Look at the fight to get here and think again, then speak to every coach and player who has ever worked with him. He’s just a “beast”? Look at the movement for the first goal and delicate touch over the goalkeeper for the second and then address your stereotypes. Misses too many chances? Lukaku has taken five shots at this World Cup. Four of them have been on target. All four have been goals.
I make no apologies for shouting my appreciation from the rooftops. Subject to more circumspection and critical analysis than others around him, Lukaku continues to disprove doubters and mock those who discredit his reputation. A World Cup Golden Boot would be another step up on this long climb to greatness.