Football lacks entertainers. The wonderful ability of an individual to captivate and tantalise stadiums with an uncoachable skill, distinguishing them from everyone else, is fading. Eden Hazard’s retirement is a poignant reminder of a player who achieved this unreachable feat.
While Hazard’s dream move to Real Madrid in 2019 materialised into disaster, his legacy extends beyond the realm of numbers and statistics. Hazard brought something different. The low centre of gravity, close control, incisive movement, hypnotic agility, and punishing end product all contributed to a stupidly impressive and mouthwatering gift. He blissfully played the game at his own pace and for his own relentless enjoyment.
Hazard’s role in Lille’s league and cup double in 2011, as well as being named Ligue 1’s Player of the Year on consecutive occasions, put him on the radar of all European juggernauts. Chelsea was the lucky club. The diminutive Belgian strutted around Stamford Bridge for seven years, gloriously flaunting his mesmerising technique, stocky frame, and peachy backside in an untouchable trophy-laden love affair.
The opposition tried their utmost to stop him, and not always in fairways. In the 2010s, Hazard won the most fouls (1030) in Europe’s top five leagues. He would be kicked, hacked, pulled and crunched. Ultimately, there was a collective acceptance that there was no other way to deal with Hazard. At Chelsea, he registered 916 successful take-ons in the Premier League. No one else managed more. He was sickeningly good.
Hazard won two Premier League titles. The first came in 2015 with Jose Mourinho and the latter with Antonio Conte in 2017. Arguably, his most scintillating campaign came in 2018/19 with the chain-smoking Maurizio Sarri. By then, the Blues lost Diego Costa, Nemanja Matic, John Terry, and Thibaut Courtois, whilst Cesc Fabregas and Gary Cahill were approaching the twilight years of their glittering careers. This dominant cohort of the Premier League conquerors had been decimated. But, Hazard remained, and this was all that mattered. He ended the domestic season with 16 goals and 15 assists, scooping the Playmaker of the Season award and the PFA Fans’ Player of the Year. The carefree artist also managed a clean sweep of every individual Chelsea award, the only player in the club’s history to do so.
Fittingly, his last game for Chelsea was a 4-1 demolition of Arsenal in the final of the Europa League. In Baku, the ball was almost superglued to his foot for 90 minutes. He scored twice and crafted an assist. The arch-tormentor and chief creator. His superiority was untameable. It was a crowning moment for Hazard, who left English football the same way he entered: in imperious fashion.
Hazard’s search for a new challenge at Los Blancos and the chance to play under his childhood hero Zinedine Zidane looked set to be the next formidable chapter of his life. But, it could not have gone worse. Hazard only completed 90 minutes six times in four seasons in Spain. For some, his premature departure from the game at just 32 is an indictment of unfulfilled potential and longevity. However, I am unafraid to be clouded by a Chelsea bias and instead side with the shared appreciation of Eden’s phenomenal offering to the beautiful game.
The man was a dancer, who bamboozled and manoeuvred around defenders with effortless grace and poise. One swift check of the shoulder and the dynamic technician would seamlessly dart in the opposite direction, with the ball in his complete control.
Hazard supported this mastery with an indomitable strength, which meant he could shrug off anyone. Just ask Francis Coquelin. In February 2017, with the Blues on a title charge, the playmaker picked the ball up from a Costa knockdown just inside his own half. In a desperate attempt to halt Hazard’s momentum, the Frenchman grappled to pinch the ball but was swatted to the ground by the unstoppable winger. The anticipation in the crowd was palpable. More onlookers stepped out of their seats as Hazard edged closer to goal. His next victim was Laurent Koscienly. Hazard, in his typical slaloming motion, forced the retreating centre back to unconvincingly dangle a leg out, which he easily evaded. With the net about to ripple there is a freeze frame. It pictures Hazard, surrounded by seven Arsenal players. In the following second, Marcos Alonso and Costa arrive in the penalty area, but their support isn’t needed. This epitomised Eden Hazard. He was the entertainer, who could do it all on his own.
Hazard’s offensive movements and decisions were automatic and devastating. His lack of interest in anything other than turning up on match day and just taking liberties with the opposing defenders was joyous. The 5 foot 9 genius made a rip-roaring entrance onto the scene as the most exciting teenager in France and then became a blue-blooded god in West London.
The flicks. The tricks. The irrepressible and irresistible talent. Everyone chased his shadow. Hazard’s expressive and experimental style, when met with near-flawless execution, left jaws on the floor. He undoubtedly had more to offer, but it is impossible to look back and not smile. The greatest Chelsea player of my lifetime. Put your feet up Eden, it was a pleasure.