Belgium striker Romelu Lukaku sent a message of support to his stricken Inter Milan team-mate Christian Eriksen after scoring, as his double helped the Red Devils open their Euro 2020 campaign with a 3-0 win over Russia on Saturday.
Lukaku gave Belgium an early lead in Saint Petersburg, then shouted “Chris, Chris, stay strong – I love you” into a pitchside camera during the celebration for his opening goal.
Eriksen is recovering in hospital in Copenhagen after collapsing on the pitch during extraordinary scenes which overshadowed Denmark’s 1-0 home defeat by Finland in Saturday’s earlier Group B game.
“I am really happy with the win, but it was hard for me to play because my thoughts were with Christian Erkisen,” said Lukaku, who revealed he cried tears of concern before kick-off for his Inter team-mate.
Belgium coach Roberto Martinez admitted other members of his squad were also affected after seeing Eriksen suddenly slump to the turf during the Denmark-Finland game.
“We were watching the game live and five minutes afer Christian collapsed, we went into a team meeting. As you can imagine, the last thing we wanted to do was talk about football,” said Martinez.
“There were a lot of tears from players who have shared dressing rooms and big moments with Christian.
“All our thoughts go to him and his family, but also to the Danish team, as that was a really tough moment.”
Substitute Thomas Meunier doubled Belgium’s lead on 34 minutes before Lukaku put the result beyond doubt with a late second goal.
Belgium, the world’s top-ranked team, are under pressure to deliver at the European Championship as some pundits claim this is Martinez’s last chance to win a title with an ageing squad.
Yet even with Manchester City playmaker Kevin De Bruyne and Borussia Dortmund midfielder Axel Witsel sidelined by injury, Belgium were too strong for Russia.
The hosts got off to a bad start when Andrei Semenov failed to deal with a cross by Dries Mertens in the build-up to the opening goal.
The ball fell to Lukaku, who span away and drove his shot into the bottom far corner on 10 minutes.
Belgium’s Timothy Castagne and Russia’s Daler Kuzyaev had to be helped off following a nasty clash of heads which saw both players substituted.
Meunier, Castagne’s replacement at right-back, grabbed Belgium’s second by slotting home the rebound after his Dortmund team-mate Thorgan Hazard swung in a cross which Anton Shunin failed to hold.
Russia raised the tempo in the second half as Roman Zobnin fired over the Belgian goal.
Real Madrid star Eden Hazard replaced Mertens for the final 18 minutes to lift the Belgian attack.
With two minutes left, Lukaku swept Meunier’s pass into the Russian net to claim his 20th goal in his last 15 international games.
Before kick-off, the Belgium team were booed for taking a knee to highlight racial injustice, while their Russian opponents stood.
Jeers echoed around the Krestovsky Stadium as the entire Belgian team, as well as Spanish referee Antonio Mateu Lahoz, knelt, while Lukaku, whose parents come from the Democratic Republic of Congo, raised his right fist.
England have said they will do the same for their opening game of the European Championship against Croatia on Sunday.
Ex-NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick started kneeling to protest against racial injustice in 2016.
The gesture has become a familiar sight across a range of sports since George Floyd, who was black, was killed by a white police officer in the United States last year.