Today, Belgium defeated Panama, 3-0, in the 2018 FIFA World Cup with the help of star Romelu Lukaku, a 25-year-old striker signed to Manchester United who holds the record for the most goals scored for the Belgian National Team. He is one of just five players to have ever scored 50 goals in the Premier League before the age of 23 and, in the match against Panama, the Antwerp native scored twice.
In a post recently published on The Players Tribune, Lukaku reveals that his greatest motivation is his poor upbringing and explains how he has allowed his challenges to push him forward rather than hold him back.
Lukaku shares how his family slept on the floor and went without electricity for weeks. His mother mixed milk with water in order to make their meals of bread and milk last longer. "We were broke. Not just poor, but broke," he writes. "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."
That realization made him determined to build a better life for himself and his family. "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," writes Lukaku. "I couldn't see my mother living like that. Nah, nah, nah. I couldn't have that."
For Lukaku, the way out was soccer. He set his sights on going pro by 16 — the youngest age at which players are allowed to compete professionally — and treated every moment on the field as if he were already in the World Cup.
In order to get more playing time while playing for an Under 19 team, Lukaku make a bet with his coach at the beginning of the season that he would score 25 goals in about five months, by December. If he failed, he would return to the bench, and if he won, the coach would make the team pancakes every day.
"That was the dumbest bet that man ever made," writes Lukaku. "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!"
Lukaku played his first professional game 11 days after his 16th birthday and walked into the locker room wearing a "terrible tracksuit," unlike his teammates who wore expensive suits. He says he still faces racist questions regarding his Belgian status because of his Congolese heritage — despite the fact that he was born in Antwerp and grew up in Liège and Brussels.
These challenges, he explains, were lessons in toughness that only made him a better athlete.
"People in football love to talk about mental strength. Well, I'm the strongest dude you're ever going to meet," he writes. "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."
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