Romelu Lukaku is 30 years old now and even at his advanced age for a footballer, he still surprises some of the people who know him best, and not always in the right way. The Belgium international is one of the best strikers in Europe. He scores goals, often in the box with one touch finishes using his strength and pace.
However, he can be unpredictable off the pitch, as he showed last summer. To say that Lukaku signing with Roma to become the club's new no. 9 in August astonished everyone is an understatement. At no point, until late in the transfer window, did the possibility of him joining Jose Mourinho come up.
Lukaku signing for Roma has to be one of the strangest transfers involving a top European player of the past few years. Roma are a great club, but they are not in the Champions League. They have little hope of winning Serie A. Their main ambition is a fourth-place finish to try to be back in the Champions League for the first time in five years. If the move doesn't make much sense, it was also the only option available for Lukaku.
Inter Milan, where he spent last season on loan from Chelsea (37 games, 14 goals in all competitions) wanted to keep him, especially after the departure of Edin Dzeko to Fenerbahce and even with the arrival of Marcus Thuram. Meanwhile, Juventus thought about him as a replacement for Dusan Vlahovic. Juventus and Chelsea had brief conversations about Lukaku but a deal was difficult to make.
Roc Nation, Lukaku's representatives at the time, offered the Belgian to PSG, who were not interested as they had other plans (they signed two other strikers last summer, Goncalo Ramos and Randal Kolo Muani), and to Bayern Munich, who preferred Harry Kane, a decision they are not regretting after the England international's brilliant start in the Bundesliga.
On the other hand, Sebastien Ledure, Lukaku's personal lawyer, also received a massive offer from Saudi Arabia which was not of interest to the player.
But Roma? Really?
At the time, Roc Nation represented Lukaku. What started as a PR-only collaboration back in March 2018 while Federico Pastorello, the Italian agent, was his on-pitch representative, had become by then a full representation agreement. The U.S. agency was negotiating hard with Chelsea to make the loan move to Inter permanent. That's what they thought Lukaku wanted, but it wasn't the case.
In London, Lukaku lived in a luxurious flat with Andrea Opi, his Roc Nation manager and one of his best friends. Yet, Lukaku could still be secretive. The interview with Sky Italia criticising Thomas Tuchel, his manager at Chelsea at the time? Behind Opi and everyone's else back. His direct conversations with Juventus? All himself. They came from his own initiative, again behind the back of Roc Nation. While they were doing their job of trying to find Lukaku a way out of Chelsea, he was ignoring their calls and doing his own thing without letting them know.
This was at the heart of Roc Nation dropping Lukaku. The tensions were at their peak last summer, with Ledure's role and influence on the player incompatible with the agency's work. Juventus was Ledure's idea, despite the comments made by the striker back in 2021.
Lukaku said, "Juventus or AC Milan? Never, never. In Italy, there is only Inter for me." Then, Lukaku started ghosting his former teammates. Lautaro Martínez's calls? Not picked up. Fede Di Marco's wedding? Not attended.
While Chelsea and Inter never had a full agreement despite two offers for a permanent move from the Italians, it was clear that the move was dead. So Roma and Mourinho it was, helped massively by the good relationship between the American owners of each club, Dan Friedkin on Roma's side and Todd Boehly on Chelsea's side.
"Mourinho called Romelu many times during the last days of the transfer window. He really wanted him again with him and Rom appreciated the love," one source told ESPN. Lukaku and Mourinho had worked together at Chelsea, back in 2011, but it didn't work out. And then again at Manchester United in 2017 for 18 months. But a third time?
"Lukaku wanted to go to a club where he would be the star, the main guy. At Inter, the fans used to love him but Lautaro became the favourite and many felt that Lukaku's misses cost them the Champions League final," explains the same source. In private, Mourinho himself repeats that the Belgian needs to be loved and to feel important.
That may explain why, at 30, he has changed clubs nine times in his career. At Chelsea, Tuchel never gave it to him, that's not what he does. Now, Mourinho does. In the Italian capital, RL9 is loved and reborn after scoring six goals in 10 Serie A games, and three in four in the Europa League. And all of that in a team which doesn't play attacking football.
Meanwhile for the Belgium national team he is scoring for fun (83 goals in his 113 caps), and he has a positive relationship with the new head coach Domenico Tedesco. Back home, Lukaku is the golden boy. Everybody loves him, from the fans to Tedesco to the head of the Belgian FA. And the national team, despite the disappointment of not having won anything yet on the international stage, is always a breath of fresh air for him, amongst all the difficult times he has gone through.
This is a big season for him. If he gets it right at Roma and shines at the Euros next summer with his country, then everything that happened last summer will be forgotten and people will talk again about him as one of the best.