From the golden tip of his hair to the magic in his toes, we chart the rise of a truly modern phenomenon. Here's an extract from this month's cover feature, by Rory Smith.
They first met at Stamford Bridge, back in February 2012. Chelsea, Lukaku’s team, were hosting Manchester United, Pogba’s employers. It was one of those rare Premier League afternoons where reality lives up to the hype. The hosts raced into a three-goal lead, and seemed to be cruising, only for the visitors to claw their way back to salvage a point.
As the mayhem unfolded in front of them, breathless and chaotic, Lukaku and Pogba were sitting in the stands, two teenagers just a little uneasy in their impeccably-tailored club suits, mired in stasis. That was where they wanted to be, on that pitch, but they had been told they were too young, told to wait their turn. “We were both waiting for that opportunity,” Lukaku remembers. “I was like: ‘Oh, you’re in the same situation as me.’ He said: ‘Yep’.”
Lukaku and Pogba have remained in touch ever since, updating each other regularly on their quests to get that chance. A few months later, the Frenchman left United, his impatience getting the better of him, to join Juventus. Lukaku would leave Chelsea, first for West Bromwich Albion and Everton on loan, then moving to Goodison Park on a permanent basis. He would leave his agent, too, switching to the same stable as Pogba, nestling under the wing of the bullish, brash, enemy-of-Fergie, Mino Raiola.
This summer, the two of them met up again in Miami. They played pick-up games of basketball on South Beach. Pogba hired a Rolls-Royce. They spent an afternoon on a yacht, sailing out to the Florida Keys. They have come a long way since that day in west London, when they consoled each other at the halting progress of their soaring ambitions.
Lukaku has become one of the finest strikers in the world, developing into a player of such menace that Chelsea, swallowing their pride, are considering spending big to rectify one of José’s biggest mistakes.
Even the Belgian would admit that his friend has outstripped him, though. Juventus brought Pogba four Serie A titles, an appearance in a Champions League final, ascension to the ranks of the very finest players on the planet. He spent this summer as the icon of a France side that would come agonisingly close to winning Euro 2016 on home soil. In February, he signed a 10-year boot deal with adidas, worth $44million. He was ranked as the most marketable footballer in the world by SportsPro. And as if that was not enough, he is now the most expensive player in the history of the game. United, too, appeared to decide money was no object when it came to righting wrongs, offering obscene sums to bring their prodigal son home, to capture the one that got away.