Romelu Lukaku has dominated headlines this summer with his expensive transfer from Everton to Manchester United, quite a different career trajectory from 1980s star Jan Ceulemans, also a powerful Belgian forward, who famously eschewed a big money move to Italy.
To describe Ceulemans to someone who has never seen him play is hard to do justice using just a single player as a reference point. He was a solid 6 ft 2 of ferocious momentum, both an attacking-midfielder and a powerhouse forward whose style was a fusion of the surging runs from deep of a fit Bryan Robson with the forceful, driving forward play of a young Wayne Rooney.
His career started in the mid 70s with Lierse and from an early stage his exceptional physical prowess shone through. Taking little time to earn a call up to the Belgian national youth set-up, Ceulemans became part of a fine generation that went on to form the basis of the Belgian team that finished as runners-up in the 1980 European Championship.
His full debut for the Red Devils came in 1977 as a 20-year-old in a 2-0 home defeat to the Dutch. He played in the subsequent win over Iceland, but his next appearance was as part of a calamitous three-goal thrashing in Belfast against Northern Ireland. He was dropped for a year and subsequently returned in October 1979, from which point he was a national fixture through to his retirement after the 1990 World Cup.
His club career took him to Club Brugge in 1978 for a then Belgian record transfer fee of £250,000. Brugge had just lost a European Cup Final and saw Ceulemans as the player to give them greater attacking bite.
Enjoying the attacking freedom he was given for his club side that was absent from the more counter-attacking national team, Ceulemans ran riot and the 29 goals he scored during the 1979-80 season took his team to a Belgian league title. The awards poured in: the Belgian Golden Ball and shortly after anointed as Belgian’s Footballer of the Year, the first of three occasions he would win both these accolades.
A career crossroads beckoned for the bustling front man in 1981 when Milan made a move to take him to Serie A. A fee was agreed with his club, personal terms were sorted and Ceulemans was set to sign his lucrative contract until his mother stepped in and begged her son to change his mind. He concurred and would spend the rest of his long career in the city of canals, though in later years spoke of his regret at giving up at such a lucrative financial opportunity.
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‘Captain Courageous’ (as he was nicknamed) was never a man to court publicity, but nonetheless spent the rest of the 1980s as the most visible face of the Belgian game – and undoubtedly its most potent attacking player. His proudest moment came in captaining his country to fourth place at the 1986 World Cup, while his loyalty to Club Brugge brought him eternal hero status, as well as three titles and two domestic Belgian Cups.
Alongside Paul Van Himst, Jan Ceulemans remains Belgium’s most celebrated forward and one whose feats Romelu Lukaku will do very well to emulate – £75million price fee or not.