Every time Romelu Lukaku scores, he thinks of his grandfather who passed away when he was 12, four years before he made his professional debut for Belgian club Anderlecht as a talented 16-year-old.
“I promised (him) that I would look after my mum, when I was 12, I did that. So every time when I look at my mum and I see her in the stands, I look at him after every goal,” Lukaku tells CNN Senior Sport Analyst Darren Lewis, pointing towards the sky, emotion crackling through every syllable. “And I say, I did it.”
Lukaku has scaled some of soccer’s highest heights – he is Belgium’s all-time top goalscorer, has won the FA Cup with Chelsea, the Serie A title with Inter Milan, and will now play in the Champions League final for Inter Milan on June 10 – but all that pales in comparison to looking after his family.
“It doesn’t matter, wins or losses, I take it in my stride, this is real family issues. So (my grandfather) meant the world to me,” he says, his voice breaking as he is unable to hold back the tears.
Playing in a Champions League is the pinnacle for any player in club soccer and when asked what this moment would mean to his grandfather, Lukaku is almost unable to answer.
“A lot,” he says, before pausing to collect his thoughts and attempt to express almost two decades of emotion as words. “When I see my son, I see so much of him…My grandfather, for me was my number one. He was my biggest fan.”
As a child growing up in Belgium, Lukaku missed 10 years of watching the Champions League. His family couldn’t afford it. Instead, he would watch the finals on school computers or pretend to his classmates that he had seen them, he recalls smiling and shaking his head.
In a Players’ Tribune article published in 2018, he wrote about his family’s poverty, remembering that his mother used to add water to milk to make it last longer.
“I couldn’t watch (the Champions League final), but now, by the grace of God, I can play one,” he adds. “To be in this position now, to have my family there, it would be a beautiful thing because then it’s like (full circle).”
On loan from Chelsea, Lukaku returned to Inter Milan in June 2022 for a second stint at the Italian club, after a period playing there between 2019 and 2021.
Inter’s experiences together during the Covid-19 pandemic, Lukaku says, solidified a “brotherhood” between the players, many of whom still form the core of the team.
“It was an emotional time because we really as a team, we spent so much time together,” he says. “At that time I really spent much more time with my teammates than with my oldest son…playing a game, going back to the hotel, staying in the room, watching games together, stuff like that.”
That bond, in some ways, emulates the spirit of the 2010 Inter Milan squad that completed an unprecedented treble, winning the Serie A title, Coppa Italia, and the Champions League.
“It’s very similar,” Lukaku says. “And to be honest, the funny thing is a lot of those players from that 2010 band, they come and watch our games and they feel the same thing.”
Inter Milan emerged from one of this year’s most difficult Champions League groups, also containing Bayern Munich and Barcelona, before defeating Porto, Benfica and crosstown rival AC Milan on route to the final.
But it faces the toughest opposition of all next weekend. Manchester City has swept all before it in a light blue wave this season and sits on the cusp of a ‘treble,’ fresh from winning the Premier League title and the FA Cup.
“It’s a beautiful thing, playing probably against the best team in the world. I just want to enjoy it, not having pressure, just enjoy the moment, enjoy the buildup, go there to have the best result possible,” Lukaku says.
Spearheading City’s attack is striker Erling Haaland who has enjoyed a record-breaking season, seemingly scoring goals at will, at a pace never seen before in the Premier League.
“I think he will dominate, with Mbappé, world football for the next 10 years. They will be fighting from the new generation…They will really take over (from Messi and Ronaldo) in the next two years.”
It is not just Haaland who will pose a threat to Inter Milan next weekend for City is a team stacked full of superstars.
“Man City is a well-drilled team…Guardiola is such a good coach because every game is a different game plan,” Lukaku observes.
“It’s not the same. They have different patterns every game… And you know (Haaland) with these movements and the way how they open defenses up at the end, he will get those chances because those movements and the patterns that they do, they synchronize very well.”