Big ROM, buoyant Rome. Even for a footballer who has travelled so widely, been through various unveiling ceremonies – twice over at some of his past clubs – and commanded almost €340 million worth of combined transfer fees in his career, the reception given to Romelu Lukaku as he arrived in the capital of Italy struck him as exceptional.
There were thousands of fans at Ciampino airport ready to greet the Belgian’s flight from London, where Chelsea, who bought Lukaku for €113 million in 2021, have agreed a year-long loan with Roma. The Italian club’s owner, Dan Friedkin, a qualified pilot, had taken the aircraft’s controls during the journey.
Happily he made a steadier landing than some of the Roma supporters who had climbed on top of parked cars at Ciampino to get a better glimpse of the arriving superstar. Windscreens were broken as the fans descended from vehicle roofs.
More of this fervour will be concentrated into the Stadio Olimpico on Friday, when, ahead of kick-off of Roma’s Serie A fixture against AC Milan, Lukaku is officially presented to romanisti. “The welcome has made me really excited and motivated,” he said on arrival in the capital.
He will doubtless gesture towards the club badge, depicting the emblematic image of the supposed founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus and the she-wolf who, according to myth, helped nurture them. Romulus, Remus, Romelu: There are several ways in which Roma’s signing of Lukaku makes sense.
For the player it distances him, at least for the season-long term of the loan, from Chelsea, where his second spell – he was also a teenage recruit at Stamford Bridge 12 years ago – turned out to be an unhappy stay.
He lost the backing of Thomas Tuchel, the manager who oversaw his arrival, and, four different head coaches later, Mauricio Pochettino took over this summer knowing an exit was being pursued by the player and the club hierarchy. Lukaku spent last season on loan at Inter Milan, from whom Chelsea had bought him for that huge fee.
If last season, hampered by injury and behind Edin Dzeko in the pecking order when it came to Inter’s starting XI for the Champions League final – Lukaku was used off the bench – was less successful than his previous two as a full Inter property, his enthusiasm for Italy still trumped any appetite for remaining in the Premier League with Chelsea.
At Roma, Lukaku is also reunited with a manager, in Jose Mourinho, who he knows as well as any. They go back to Lukaku’s first spell at Chelsea, where the then 20-year-old striker, fresh from an impressive loan at West Bromwich Albion was hopeful Mourinho’s second stint at Stamford Bridge would ease him up the career ladder. It was not so simple.
Mourinho gave Lukaku one big-stage moment, off the bench in a Uefa Super Cup final against Bayern Munich; in the deciding penalty shoot-out, Lukaku was assigned the spot-kick to take the tie-breaker into sudden death. Manuel Neuer saved it and within two days Lukaku was on his way to Everton on loan.
But that would merely be a pause in the Mou-and-Romelu story. His impressive leading of the line at Everton, who he later joined permanently, identified Lukaku as the sort of centre-forward Mourinho wanted to give impetus to Manchester United after Mourinho had been at United for a season.
Lukaku moved from Goodison Park to Old Trafford for €85 million in 2017 and scored 33 times in 76 matches under the Portuguese. After Mourinho was sacked a season and a half later, Lukaku remained in Manchester until joining Inter the following summer.
In talks last week, Mourinho was persuasive about Roma, just as he had been 12 months ago in luring Paulo Dybala, the Argentinian playmaker who left Juventus for a club not in the Champions League. But Roma have reached the finals of lesser Uefa competitions in the last two seasons. Lukaku, Mourinho believes, has the pedigree and the experience to lift them to a genuine challenge for the Italian title and certainly into Serie A’s top four.
Besides, with Tammy Abraham, the club’s first-choice centre-forward over the last two seasons, in long-term recuperation from a cruciate ligament injury, Roma need fresh firepower. They have it two-fold, with Lukaku following Sardar Azmoun, the striker who made global headlines last year for allying himself to anti-government protests in his native Iran. Azmoun has joined on loan from Bayer Leverkusen, though neither he or Lukaku are deemed match-fit enough to start this evening’s game.
Milan, for their part, were on Thursday still looking to increase their options up front, trying to iron out details around Azmoun’s Iran international colleague Mehdi Taremi’s proposed move from Porto. The clubs were negotiating a fee of around €15 million for the centre-forward.