Belgian striker Lukaku and his Congolese roots

July 12, 2018 12:08
Manchester United forward Romelu Lukaku is a Belgian citizen by birth, although he could trace his roots to Congo, a former Belgian colony. Photo: Reuters

After 32 years, Belgium once again made it to the World Cup Semi-finals, only to be defeated by France 1-0 on Tuesday.

However, despite the team’s loss, the stunning performances of several Belgian star players who are naturalized citizens of the country or descendants of immigrants have wowed soccer fans worldwide.

Among them is the 25-year-old Romelu Lukaku, currently a Manchester United forward.

Although Lukaku is a Belgian citizen by birth, he is more often seen as a Congolese, mainly because his father is an immigrant from Congo, a former Belgian colony.

Whenever Lukaku pulls off a good show on the field, he would be hailed as a “real” Belgian. However, if he performs poorly, his Congolese origins would often be magnified.

Lukaku’s father, who himself was also a professional soccer player and was capped for Zaire, now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo, left his country for the neighboring Côte d'Ivoire and then Belgium in 1990, when the Central African state was in political turmoil.

In 1990, Mobutu Sese Seko, the former dictator of Zaire (now Congo) and a proxy of the West, was forced to embark on political and economic reforms following the end of western support for his regime in the wake of the Cold War.

Unfortunately, almost immediately after Seko had loosened his grip on power and relented to the opposition, the entire country started descending into political chaos, and was soon engulfed by an all-out civil war in 1993.

It was against this backdrop that Lukaku’s father decided to flee the country and seek refuge in Belgium, where he made his living and raised his children by playing in lower league teams.

Lukaku’s father chose to settle in Belgium because Congo used to be a Belgian colony, and during the colonial era, many Congolese migrated to Belgium to seek a better life.

An overseas Congolese community soon emerged in Belgium, and Lukaku's father opted to settle there. In fact, he probably wouldn’t have been able to flee Congo without the help of his uncle in Belgium.

Despite the fact that Belgian colonial rule in Congo was notoriously brutal and savage, some Congolese managed to climb up the social ladder, make a fortune through foreign trade and eventually settle in Belgium.

And so Lukaku has become a national soccer icon, and his performance on the pitch has, to a considerable extent, affected the people's general attitude towards immigrants in Belgium.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on July 11

Translation by Alan Lee with additional reporting

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Associate professor and director of Global Studies Programme, Faculty of Social Science, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Lead Writer (Global) at the Hong Kong Economic Journal