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Manchester United's Romelu Lukaku is a first-rate striker and racist chant only degrades his immense talent

Eldoret is the home of Kenyan running. It’s the magical birthplace of Kenya’s elite runners. Each year a Darwinian process whittles down a vast pool of runners to a select group of athletes who may, ultimately, excel, professionalise and compete overseas to represent Kenya at international meetings, World Championships and the Olympic Games.

It’s the path Ezekiel Kemboi, former Olympic champion, followed. His successor Conseslus Kipruto, the current Olympic champion and new world champion from London 2017, ran out of Eldoret as well. They are Kalenjin, an ethnic group that has inhabited much of the Rift Valley.

So why does it matter that Kalenjin export long distance running from a little village close to the Ugandan border in East Kenya? It debunks the myth that Africans excel in distance running. They don’t. Has anyone from West Africa ever won the 3000 meters steeplechase — or the marathon for that matter? Kenyans aren’t good at running but for a small subsection of their population.

Do blacks run well? These notions have ossified ‘the diversity of humankind within a gallery of national archetypes’ and within race. It’s the absolutism of racist ideas, deeply embedded in the global social fabric. They have filtered through in various guises and in different contexts.

That much was on display when an unquantified minority of Manchester United fans belted out a song about the size of Romelu Lukaku’s manhood during the Champions League match away to Basel, and again, during a Carabao Cup victory over Burton Albion last Wednesday. It was brattish banter centered on juvenile phallocentrism, but racist in essence.

 Manchester Uniteds Romelu Lukaku is a first-rate striker and racist chant only degrades his immense talent

The chants by Manchester United fans about Romelu Lukaku's manhood was brattish banter centered on juvenile phallocentrism, but racist in essence. Reuters

Football matches and stadiums consecrate mainstream rituals of the English everyday life: the banter, the beers and the burgers; it can all get a bit greasy as kick-off approaches (spot the stereotyping about the average white middle class man). Those get-togethers have virtues. They foster cultural exchange, friendships and the genuine folly of football fandom. The game, with grounds being large public arenas, also provides a platform and basis for the other extremes — prejudice, stereotyping, tribalism, ethnocentrism and ultimately racism.

These, however, are no longer the dark ages when chants of ‘Ain’t No Black In The Union Jack’ or ‘I’d rather be a Paki than a Scouse’ rolled down from the stands, but institutionalised racism will always remain a latent part of football. Lukaku seemingly ticks all the boxes for the classic articulation about black players — superior athleticism, but with little game intelligence. In the past Alan Pardew offered that the Belgian striker didn’t have the "cleverness" of Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Paul Merson said that Lukaku was "not bright enough to play with Eden Hazard and Cesc Fabregas."

Those remarks are not a coincidence. Yet it’s ironic to see how well Lukaku — for all his supposed blandness and bluntness — has settled at Old Trafford. Lukaku, brimming with youthfulness, weighs on a defense in a way that Wayne Rooney couldn’t muster any more last season.

The Belgian star striker has increased his shot volume with the United set-up offering him more goalscoring opportunities than when he spearheaded Everton’s strike force. He is scoring at a healthy rate and Lukaku is rapidly becoming a marquee payer in Jose Mourinho’s booming Manchester United, who have gone from fleetingness to magnificently floating in a matter of summer months.

Still, it’s not a coincidence that of all players Lukaku is the target. Back home, he has faced subtly simmering racism at the infamous Heysel Stadium. Time and again, Lukaku has had to deal with the ire and rancor of the Belgian fans when Belgium doesn’t play well.

Even as Premier League's top scorer, he has scarcely been embraced or cherished, but his crucial goals against Greece in World Cup qualification, effectively sealing a ticket for the tournament, have given him some credit. Coach Roberto Martinez has often defended his striker, highlighting his understanding of the game and high work rate (Note the stereotypes never associated with black players).

The Belgian aversion towards Lukaku is insulting, the chants by Manchester United fans degrading, in particular because of the player’s Congolese ancestry. The colonising Belgians made severing body parts from black Congolese something of a favorite pastime. This historical context of violence and shaming renders the Lukaku saga deplorable. Manchester United’s number nine is a superb, first-rate striker. That’s the only criterion that matters.

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Updated Date: Sep 23, 2017 16:10:29 IST