Eden Hazard was what football should be about: the joy of expressing yourself on a pitch

Jose Mourinho will take no satisfaction from being proved right this time.

It was after Chelsea had suffered a 5-3 defeat at Tottenham Hotspur in 2015 that he predicted Eden Hazard’s career would end prematurely. The clip of his gloomy forecast is trending on social media once again on this sad day for the game.

He said: “The way, match after match, he is being punished by opponents and is not being protected by referees, maybe one day we do not have Eden Hazard. It is one, two, three, four, five, 10 fouls, aggressive fouls. They kick, they kick, they kick and the kid is resisting because he is a fantastic kid, strong physically. He is very honest in the way he plays. But this is also another problem.”

Hazard’s announcement he is retiring at the age of 32 has not been greeted with any surprise, which speaks volumes. “You must listen to yourself and say stop at the right time,” the former Belgium international wrote in his farewell statement on Tuesday morning.

In truth, the world of football has been denied the sight of Hazard at his glorious best for the last four years. His dream move from Chelsea to Real Madrid in 2019 for an initial £89million ($109m by today’s rates), rising to £150million if all the add-ons were triggered, turned into a nightmare.

At his peak, Hazard was almost impossible to stop (Adrian Dennis/AFP via Getty Images)

The fact Chelsea commanded such an enormous sum should always be regarded as an indication of his immense talent. Hazard had only a year left on his contract and could have begun negotiations over joining the La Liga club as a free agent the following January. He was one of the best players in the world but more than that, he was an individual that football fans around the globe enjoyed watching, some rather begrudgingly as he made fools of the team they love.

Hazard fitted the description of being a galactico. This term was used for the high-profile players Real Madrid signed in the early 2000s, including Zinedine Zidane, Luis Figo, Ronaldo and David Beckham.

But the sadness everyone should feel stems from never getting to see him live up to such a billing at the Bernabeu. It was a challenge from former Belgium team-mate Thomas Meunier during a Champions League game against Paris Saint-Germain on November 26, 2019, that initiated an injury-ravaged four years. As The Athletic highlighted in an article this year, it was not the worst tackle he ever received. But the loud and instant cry of agony from Hazard’s lips as the defender clumsily made heavy contact with his right ankle, which had suffered a break two years earlier, betrayed how serious it was.

Hazard was ruled out for three months but never really recovered. He sustained several injury issues thereafter and surgery could not fully remedy the ankle. Remarkably, he completed 90 minutes for Real Madrid on just one occasion after that injury against PSG. In total, he made 76 appearances for Real, of which only 44 were starts. In June, the La Liga club announced he was leaving by mutual consent, even though he still had 12 months left on his deal.

There was no bitterness on Hazard’s side. He revelled in living in Madrid. He still resides there now, with one of his sons playing in the club’s academy.

Granted, his relationship with head coach Carlo Ancelotti was not the best. They barely spoke. It was clear he was not part of the Italian’s plans when he was largely ignored, despite training well, on returning from the 2022 World Cup. He had to wait until April to play in La Liga and went on to make three more appearances, totalling 96 minutes. Hazard never let his personal struggles have a detrimental impact on the mood in the camp, maintaining a good bond with his team-mates.

It would be an injustice if Hazard is only remembered for how things went wrong or by those who revel in the negative, writing him off as being a transfer flop.

Hazard is an example of what the best of football should be about — the pure joy of expressing yourself on a pitch and entertaining those who pay a fortune to watch in the process, whether it be attending in person or via a TV subscription.

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Hazard’s time at Real Madrid was blighted by injuries (Javier Soriano/AFP via Getty Images)

The tributes are already rolling in from the football family. At Lille, the club where Hazard made his name after coming through the ranks from the age of 14, a statement read: “A prodigy whose face is engraved in the entrance to the Domaine de Luchin, the greatest talent trained here.”

Jean-Michel Vandamme, Lille’s former academy director, told The Athletic in 2019 just how hard it was for the Ligue 1 side to cope with Hazard’s departure when Chelsea beat competition from clubs across Europe to sign him in 2012.

“It’s a bit like a train that suddenly loses its locomotive,” he said. “When a train loses its locomotive, it stops. So you try different locomotives, but it’s rarely ever the same.”

Hazard relished the attention his transfer that summer generated. After months of meeting and flirting with various clubs, he posted on Twitter, “I’m signing for the Champions League winner.” Chelsea had lifted the trophy a few months earlier.

Chelsea have picked up more than their fair share of expensive recruits who have buckled under the pressure over the years. Hazard took less than two minutes to make an impact on his Premier League debut, spinning bewildered Wigan Athletic defender Ivan Ramis before playing the ball perfectly into Branislav Ivanovic’s path to score. A clearly still bewildered Ramis fouled Hazard in the area soon after to concede a penalty. Chelsea won 2-0, with Hazard the orchestrator of both goals.

Days later, then-head coach Roberto Di Matteo was asked whether Hazard could have as big an impact at Stamford Bridge as a Chelsea legend he played with, Gianfranco Zola.

“Gianfranco Zola was a wonderful talent, an artist,” Di Matteo replied. “Eden might become an artist as well.”

It seemed very premature to make such a comparison, but now the debate will rage over who was the better player. Hazard’s return of 110 goals and 92 assists in 352 appearances is far better, plus he collected six major honours, including two Premier League titles. Zola did not win the league with Chelsea, although he played in an inferior team. Regardless of whose camp you are in, both men possessed that same, rare ability to get a crowd off their seats, to garner utter gasps of admiration.

Strangely, even in his pomp, Hazard was viewed negatively in some quarters. He was often criticised for failing to meet the levels set by Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo… some crime.

It is true he was not the best trainer. He was rightly chastised by the Spanish media for turning up for his first pre-season at Real Madrid worse than his best shape. His love of junk food, including burgers and biscuits, proved hard to resist. “When I’m on vacation, I’m on vacation,” he said.

Hazard’s relaxed approach to preparation frustrated his Chelsea team-mates too — as Mikel John Obi told The Athletic in 2021: “Why was he so bad (as a trainer)? Oh my god! Eden, Eden, Eden… ahhhhh. Because he was so good, nobody said anything. He would turn up on a Saturday and win us the game, the man of the match. But on Monday and Tuesday, he would be at training and it was like he wasn’t even there.

“He just stood about, walking around. Everyone else is kicking each other, screaming in training matches and he didn’t do any of that. But you saw on the pitch how good he is. It’s just not fair that some people have that much talent!”

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Hazard holding the 2016-17 Premier League trophy, his second league title at Chelsea (Ian Kington/AFP via Getty Images)

Hazard never craved the level of fame Messi and Ronaldo did. After scoring one of his greatest goals against Arsenal in a 3-1 victory in 2017, he did not go out to celebrate or bask in the replays shown on TV. He went home to be with his beloved wife Natacha and their children. They have always been his priority and that is how he has lived in Madrid as well.

Hazard could not match Messi or Ronaldo when it came to the commitment and drive to constantly work on his game. But he was far more relatable as a person. There was no ego when he talked to journalists. More often than not, there was a joke followed by a cheeky wink. His enthusiasm was infectious.

Even in the 2015-16 season, Chelsea’s worst during his time in London, Hazard provided the highlight. Injury and reports of a rift with Mourinho were having a detrimental effect on the Belgian’s form. When Mourinho was dismissed in December, Hazard sent him a message to apologise for his displays. But as far as Chelsea fans were concerned, Hazard more than made up for it when he scored a brilliant equaliser against Tottenham, which ensured their rivals could no longer win the title and Leicester were crowned champions instead. It was comfortably voted by fans as the club’s goal of the season.

Whether it was his best in a Chelsea shirt is hard to call. There were his two beautiful solo efforts against Liverpool at Anfield (2016 and 2018), plus the image of him waltzing past West Ham United players aplenty in April 2019.

After starring for Belgium at the 2018 World Cup, where he finished runner-up to Luka Modric in the vote for player of the tournament, Hazard agreed to give Chelsea one more season before fulfilling his lifelong ambition of moving to Real Madrid. He saved the best until last under Maurizio Sarri, with 21 goals and 17 assists.

Much was made about ‘Sarri-ball’ that year and what it actually consisted of. Fans would joke about how it consisted of lots of passing before giving the ball to Hazard for him to try something. It certainly worked in the Europa League final, which was Hazard’s final Chelsea appearance, as he scored twice and set up another in a 4-1 victory over Arsenal.

People will still wonder why he is leaving the game. He did consider playing somewhere else. There was not much in the reports linking him with clubs in Belgium, but a switch to MLS was given some thought because the lifestyle in the U.S. appealed. But essentially, nothing materialised because Hazard just wants to get on with enjoying his life.

We should count ourselves fortunate that he has given us a lot of memories with the ball at his feet to enjoy.

(Top photo: Adrian Dennis/AFP via Getty Images)

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