There hasn’t been an awful lot of excitement in this summer’s transfer window but there has been the odd story that has caught people’s attention. It appeared as though Romelu Lukaku was heading to Chelsea and Alvaro Morata to Manchester United, but the Belgian striker snubbed his former team to be re-united with Jose Mourinho, leaving the Spaniard with a move to Stamford Bridge.
In Lukaku, United have a proven goalscorer, who by the age of 24 has scored more than Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Luis Suarez and Cristiano Ronaldo had at the same age. In fact, having just begun his sixth season of starting in the Premier League, Lukaku already has more Premier League goals than Fernando Torres and Denis Bergkamp. By the end of the season, he will likely have overtaken Didier Drogba and Ruud van Nistelrooy too.
Despite missing his penalty in the Community Shield against Arsenal and a sitter against Tottenham Hotspur at the weekend, Morata will likely go on to have a good career at Chelsea. His goal and assists record doesn’t compare to Lukaku’s though.
While you would accept Chelsea fans hailing Morata as the better buy, it doesn’t make an awful lot of sense for the neutral to, yet some have argued that Antonio Conte has got the better deal. Fine, people are entitled to their own preference, but when the foundation behind their opinion is that Lukaku is “lacking intelligence”, questions should be asked.
European football journalist Mina Rzouki told BBC 5 Live: “I would pay £20m or £30m more if I had to and I would bring in Morata. That is because I would always prefer an intelligent player in my team. Even if he doesn’t score as many goals, even if he doesn’t do whatever he needs to.”
Following Lukaku’s fourth goal in three competitive games for United against Swansea at the weekend, Alan Pardew, in his role as pundit for Sky Sports, claimed the striker didn’t have the “cleverness“ that Ibrahimovic, Van Nistelrooy and Teddy Sherigham had.
Paul Merson previously claimed the striker made the right move in joining United instead of Chelsea, as he’s “not bright enough to play with Eden Hazard and Cesc Fabregas.” We’ll ignore the irony of Merson downplaying anyone else’s intelligence.
Lukaku has done very well then, considering he has no footballing brain, to have scored so many goals for clubs, before now, that have been scraping around in midtable positions. When you consider that only six of his goals have been from the penalty spot, it makes you wonder how on earth he worked out to be in the right place at the right time to score so many times.
Lukaku’s former manager at Everton, Roberto Martinez, spoke contrary to the lazy stereotype that has been banded around and gave insight in to what sort of a player he is.
“The first time I spoke with him I realised that he was not a typical centre forward, power whatever,” he said. “He is a thinker. He is a really knowledgeable man and is someone who looks at games in a very different way. He is like a manager in the way that he looks at movement. He speaks about games that he’s seen, different moves – not the normal conversation that you would have with an ordinary 20-year-old footballer, believe me.”
After Lukaku met up with his new teammates in the summer, Antonio Valencia lauded Lukaku for his obvious strength but also hailed his intelligence.
When at Everton, Lukaku was interviewed by Thierry Henry for Sky Sports, and discussed the thought process and effort that goes in to improving his performances.
“I have a lot of clips on my computer of different types of strikers and I spend hours, and hours, and hours watching it,” Lukaku said. “I try to learn what their strongest points are, pick out a little bit and work on it in training. I love watching football. I love studying other players.”
Henry puffed out his cheeks at one point in the interview, exclaiming, “it’s refreshing to see how bright you are.” Maybe Henry was surprised too. Maybe he had bought in to the myth.
It’s not just strikers who Lukaku studies though but opponents too. In 2015, he revealed that before every game he gets out his laptop and watches clips of the defenders he is about to face.
“When I watch a match I know what teams are going to do, I know what their patterns are because I watch the games and I know and I see the movements,” he explained.
He also revealed that from a young age he has been keen to self-analyse his performances and would know which areas of his game his youth coaches were going to pull him up for even before discussing it with him.
Another skill he developed was ‘taking pictures in his head’, to map out where he was in relation to the goal, his teammates and the opposition.
“When I am in a certain position on the pitch I always take a picture of the goal and how the defenders are positioned and that’s when I know what I am going to do,” he said.
These excerpts don’t sound like the words of someone lacking a football brain. That’s not to say he will always make the right decision. In the Super Cup final against Real Madrid, he chased after a ball he had to know he would be offside for, but then maybe that was more to do with instinct and desperation to get a goal. ‘Intelligence level: ZERO‘ was how it was described by plenty on Twitter. Still, Javier Hernandez spends his life going after balls from offside positions but pundits don’t claim he lacks intelligence.
So if they aren’t talking about his footballing intelligence, maybe they are just claiming he’s just not very smart. But for a man who speaks six languages, and whose mother wouldn’t let him leave for Chelsea when he was 14 but stay in Belgium until he had finished his education, it’s hard to know how claims of him being stupid can be substantiated.
Lukaku isn’t the first and is unlikely to be the last black player to have his intelligence unfairly questioned though.
“Until we are considered to be intellectually equal, we will never be equal,” John Barnes said in 2009. Yet when even the managers, the people picking the teams, are guilty of racism, what chance do the players have of combatting the false stereotypes. The fact we have so few black managers, a topic that some journalists have shined a light on, doesn’t help matters, and is another product of racist attitudes in the sport.
Bayern Munich assistant Willy Sagnol, when manager of Bordeux, claimed he wouldn’t be signing many African players, as, despite being “ready to fight” they didn’t have the required “technique” and “intelligence”.
The more famous example probably comes from Ron Atkinson, retired from management when making the comments, who referred to Marcel Desailly as “what is known in some schools as a fucking lazy, thick n*gger”.
Ah yes, of course. Laziness. The other characteristic too often falsely attributed to black footballers.
In 2014, Yaya Toure’s agent, Dimitri Seluk, claimed his client would have won player of the year award if he were white. “He does not get the praise he should,” the agent added.
When manager of Manchester City, Manuel Pellegrini took to press conferences to defend Toure against the label of being “lazy”, after being questioned by a journalist, he was quick to provide facts to dispel the myths.
“If you review the numbers of Yaya, each game he runs as much as every teammate,” he argued, although his words likely fell on deaf ears.
Even when 32 and approaching the twilight of his career, the distance Toure covered on the pitch per game was up there among some of the most hard-working players at the club, ranking directly behind David Silva but above Fernandinho.
Toure will be labelled lazy about as often as he’s described as “powerful”and “strong” though, just like every up-and-coming black midfielder is likened to a “young Patrick Vieira”, regardless of whether their attributes are anything alike. The Match of the Day analysis of Paul Pogba’s brilliant display against Swansea on Saturday showed how even when black players are being praised, their real talents are overlooked and they are categorised in stereotypical ways.
Pogba’s technical ability is out of this world. The tight situations he manages to manoeuvre out of while keeping the ball at his feet is remarkable to watch. With a dip of the shoulder he can send an opponent the wrong way, before his skilful feet quickly move the ball. His finish on Saturday, a lovely dink over the goalkeeper, was exquisite. Yet you will rarely find any delicate adjectives used to describe Pogba on the pitch.
“What he brings you is this powerful presence in the opposition box,” Danny Murphy said. “What he’s best at is using his athleticism, his power… he’s nice and fit, and strong.”
Yes, Pogba is all of those things, but that is not what stood out about his performance on Saturday. It’s hard to imagine that if any white player was to perform in the same way that Murphy would be cooing over their physical prowess instead of their technical ability.
It’s 2017 and we’re still putting black footballers in to boxes. They are thick, lazy and physically strong. If we say it often enough, it becomes true. And if Lukaku outscores Morata this season, it will be his power that did it, while the white player can still be hailed for his intelligence, despite his inferior goal tally.
Surely we’re better than this.