Manchester United striker Romelu Lukaku has recalled how growing up without much money and realising at the age of six that his family was ‘not just poor, but broke’ was a key motivation in driving him on to become a footballer so he could take the financial burden off his parents.
Lukaku’s father, Roger, had been a professional player himself, but with his career at an end and no money left, the family struggled to make ends meet.
Looking back on his early life, Lukaku explained to The Players’ Tribune how there was a moment when he saw his mother adding water to milk to make it last longer that he knew things were bad.
The young Lukaku was used to having just bread and milk every day, but on this particular day after coming home from school for lunch things were different.
“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,” he said. “But this time she was mixing something in with it. 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 realised 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.”
Lukaku, who grew up in Antwerp before joining Anderlecht in Brussels at the age of 13, recalled how as the family’s money ran dry, the cable TV was shut off, there would be no electricity for up to three weeks at a time, and showering meant using a cup to pour water heated on the stove.
“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,” the player said.
“I knew we were struggling. But when she was mixing in water with the milk, I realised it was over, you know what I mean? This was our life.”
That moment, as a six-year-old, was when Lukaku knew he had to do something.
“I didn’t say a word. I didn’t want [my mum] 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,” he said.
“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 mum, 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 asked my father, ‘When can you start playing professional football?’ He said, ‘Sixteen’. I said, ‘Okay, sixteen then.’ It was going to happen. Period.”
At the age of 12 Lukaku’s maternal grandfather, who the player calls ‘one of the most important people in my life’, died. But just days before his passing he had given the young Lukaku even more motivation to make it as a footballer.
“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. 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, ‘That’s great. But can you do me a favour?’ 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 okay.’ He said, ‘No, promise me. Can you promise me? Just look after my daughter. Just look after her for me, okay?’ I said, ‘Yeah, Grandad. I got it. I promise you.’
“Five days later he passed away, and 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 okay. I told my mum that I would make it at 16.
“I was late by 11 days.”
Having signed professional terms just a couple of weeks earlier, Lukaku made his first team debut for Anderlecht in May 2009 against Standard Liege. Anderlecht lost, losing the title to Standard, but for Lukaku it was the start of an incredible journey that has so far seen him play over 400 games for club and country, and be able to take care of his family.
“We lost the final that day, but I was already in heaven. I made good on my promise to my mother and to my grandad. That was the moment I knew we were gonna be okay,” he said.