Romelu Lukaku had it all. Or, more accurately, all that you can reasonably expect to have when you’re a 30-year old forward who under-performed relative to his massive salary, suffered through an injury-hampered campaign, missed sitters on the biggest stage (like at the World Cup and in the Champions League final) and is under contract with a club like Chelsea, who don’t want him and are desperate for him to leave.
Lukaku had a team and a city who loved him — a place where he was comfortable, having spent three of the past four seasons there. He knew that Inter, where he played last season on loan, would struggle to sign him outright from Chelsea. The Milan club were still under a settlement agreement with UEFA, the governing body of European football, which meant that because of earlier Financial Fair Play breaches, their spending was going to be capped.
But Lukaku also knew they desperately wanted to keep him and, just as importantly, Chelsea wanted him gone to help balance the books, ideally on a permanent deal, though a loan would do. And when two parties are desperate enough to want something to happen, they usually compromise and find a way. (There was also no viable alternative other than a move to Saudi Arabia, which frankly did not interest him: the combination of age, salary and subpar performances meant nobody else was in the market for him.)
He was in a good place, he really was.
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It’s true that the things you hold can shatter and crumble through your fingers like dust, but here is somebody who took a sledgehammer to what he held and smashed it to dust himself. And with a week to go until the end of the European transfer window, Lukaku is still stuck at Chelsea.
Until mid-July, Lukaku’s future seemed destined to follow a familiar script. He professed his love for Inter and said he wanted to stay there, and that the feeling was mutual.
Chelsea had moved on from Lukaku, and they’d done so for many reasons. Partly because he hadn’t done well after they signed him in the summer of 2021, partly because he had given an unauthorized interview that so incensed the club and their fans that he later had to apologize, and partly because Chelsea, under new ownership, were headed in a new direction with fewer veterans on big wages.
Alas, the problem for Chelsea was that while they had moved on from Lukaku, they hadn’t moved on from Lukaku’s contract, which was costing them around $45m a season in wages and amortization. Taking a hit like that — for a guy who wasn’t producing — was going to be extremely painful, possibly jeopardizing Chelsea’s chances of meeting Premier League and UEFA Financial Stability regulations. That’s what happens when you spend in excess of $680m in the previous transfer windows, like Chelsea had done, so logic suggested that at some point, they’d find common ground.
On July 12, Inter believed they had reached a verbal agreement on a transfer fee of €30m ($32m), rising to €35m ($38m) with performance bonuses. To make it work, Lukaku would take a pay cut in exchange for a longer-term deal from the three years he had left at Chelsea, to five at Inter. Chelsea would take a hit — they had paid more than 3½ times as much to acquire him in 2021, and his residual “book value” was in excess of €60m — but they would save a bundle on his salary.
And then came the twist nobody expected.
Lukaku was all set to join Inter, but after seemingly going off the grid, his entire future is now in doubt. Joosep Martinson – UEFA/UEFA via Getty Images
Both Inter and Chelsea reached out to Lukaku and his lawyer, Sebastien Ledure, but both, without warning, went dark. Calls went unanswered — messages, too. His Inter teammates also had no luck in tracking him down, including Lautaro Martínez, whose wedding he’d attended six weeks earlier in the company of Megan Thee Stallion, no less.
Was it a negotiating tactic? Did he have a new number and forgot to tell anyone? Had his roaming credit expired and there was no Wi-Fi nearby? We just don’t know.
What we do know is that on July 17, two days after Inter went public with the news that he was unreachable for days and that they had given up on him, stories emerged that Ledure had been in touch, Lukaku was ready to talk and even ask forgiveness for his radio silence. But at that point, Inter had had enough. So too did Inter’s Ultras, who lambasted him in a harsh communique.
We also know that stories began appearing linking Lukaku with Juventus, which would have been a heel turn somewhere between Sol Campbell and Benedict Arnold. Lukaku had always insisted he would never play for Juve and, in fact, he was racially abused by some Juve fans when the clubs met in the Coppa Italia semifinal three months earlier. Many Juve fans were quick to take to social media to announce how they didn’t want Lukaku, repeating the message loud and clear to the club’s hierarchy during the club’s traditional preseason friendly between the first team and the under-23 side.
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The link to Juventus always seemed odd. Leaving aside fan sentiment — and you really shouldn’t leave it aside, because these are your customers — Juventus are in dire financial straits and won’t play European football this year. The only way they could sign Lukaku was if they sold their incumbent center-forward, Dusan Vlahovic, and the papers were soon full of stories about how an improbable Vlahovic for Lukaku, plus cash, deal was being engineered with Chelsea.
It was improbable because it made little sense for both clubs. The main appeal to Chelsea was that while they wouldn’t exactly be thrilled with Vlahovic (poor season, injury record, high wages), at least he wasn’t Lukaku, whom they liked even less. A lot less. The appeal to Juve? Other than the fact that coach Max Allegri was rumored to be a Lukaku fan, it’s hard to tell.
Speculation rumbled about a swap until Juve shut it down for a number of reasons: Vlahovic made it clear he didn’t want to move, the fans’ reaction was intense and because they were never really into the idea to begin with. For their part, Chelsea always denied that they were after Vlahovic, all of which brings us to the present.
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With the transfer window clock ticking, agents and intermediaries around Europe are trying to engineer deals with clubs who may need a striker. There were reports linking Lukaku to Tottenham after the sale of Harry Kane (now that would have been a proper heel turn!) and Roma, where Jose Mourinho (who signed him at Manchester United) needs a center-forward, but a bit like Inter, they can’t really afford one with Lukaku’s price tag.
It feels like Lukaku is being offered to teams all over Europe just like he was before, except now — you’d imagine — the price keeps dropping, both in terms of Chelsea’s demands and his own salary expectations. The problem, once again, is that it would need to be a very steep drop for the clubs who might be interested in him to be able to afford him. And those who can aren’t interested.
The most logical outcome would seem to be some sort of loan deal so that Chelsea don’t remain on the hook for Lukaku’s monster salary. (Yes, he was one of the top 10 highest-paid players in the world in 2022-23). But even that is difficult. Chelsea are only allowed to loan out five players outside of England. They’ve used three of those slots already, and another is likely to go to Deivid Washington, whom they just signed from Santos and is expected to join Strasbourg for the 2023-24 season.
If Lukaku doesn’t leave by Sept. 1? Well, there’s always Saudi Arabia, where the market is open until Sept. 20, right? Yes and no. Al Hilal, the club most seriously interested in him, have just signed Aleksandar Mitrovic from Fulham for $60m, and he plays the same position.
And while it may feel that every Saudi club has cash to burn, in reality only four — Al Hilal, Al Ahli, Al-Ittihad and Al Nassr, all of which are controlled by the Public Investment Fund — have done most of the spending. Not only are they limited, under league rules, in the number of foreign players they can have (eight), those four teams’ center-forwards are Mitrovic, Karim Benzema, Cristiano Ronaldo and Roberto Firmino, meaning there isn’t much room for Lukaku.
The most fascinating aspect of this is that we haven’t heard from Lukaku. We haven’t heard how he feels about the situation and what made him change his mind, which is odd, because it’s not the first time he made a 180-degree turn and veered off in a different direction. In the summer of 2017, everything had been agreed for him to join Chelsea from Everton when, suddenly, he chose Manchester United, supposedly on the advice of his mother, with whom he is very close. It left everybody shell-shocked (and didn’t end well).
Is this a similar situation? A gut feeling to say “no” to Inter just like the one that, as the story goes, prompted his mom’s about-face toward Chelsea six years ago? Maybe. He knows the drill: he’s had at least three different agents over the years, he’s been a professional for 14 years and played for seven different clubs — in fact, only Neymar has generated more cumulative transfer fees.
The big difference is that in 2017, his stock was high and he had another landing spot. It’s hard to see where he can land now, left to ponder the rashest of rash decisions: not picking up the phone.