As Eden Hazard delivered the contractually-obliged rendition of keepy-uppies in the Santiago Bernabéu in front of a crowd bigger than some La Liga attendances, he was fulfilling a lifelong dream.
A decade after Zinedine Zidane first declared that he would take the Belgian to Real Madrid with his eyes closed, the Spanish giants finally got their man in the summer of 2019.
That presentation may have been the first time Hazard donned an official Madrid shirt, but he has been kitted in the colours of Los Blancos since childhood.
Footballers often revel in the fact that they can point to tattered photos of their younger selves dribbling in the garden with a ball that comes up to their knee. But Hazard can go one better. As his mother told Les Parisien: “Eden scored goals before his birth thanks to me!”
Carine Hazard, like her husband Thierry, and all four of her sons, was a footballer and only stopped playing when she was three months pregnant with Eden. In fact, Mr and Mrs Hazard even met at a stadium.
Their eldest son also joined the family business, making his name across the border at Lille. In each of his four full seasons with the club, Hazard won either Ligue’s 1 Player or Young Player of the Year award.
Manager Rudi Garcia experimented with Hazard through the middle on occasion, but he was largely stationed out wide, nimbly weaving between the forest of opposition legs at any chance he got. During his time in the French top flight, Hazard averaged 5.7 dribbles per 90 minutes – a greater rate than Wolverhampton Wanderers’ Adama Traoré this season.
This ability to bamboozle continued after his move to Chelsea in 2012 as Hazard’s physique – along with his quick feet – proved fundamental to his evasiveness. Jim Pate, a senior physiologist at the Centre for Health and Human Performance, explained the genetic edge the 5’7, 76kg Hazard has over an opponent.
“What differentiates Hazard from just being small is that he has a large amount of body mass, which is all muscle,” he told The Telegraph. “So he’s on an equal ground in terms of mass, but because he is lower to the ground he can get up underneath the bigger guys. He becomes the fulcrum on the lever.”
To accompany his dribbling, Hazard’s end product improved each season at Lille. His final campaign with Les Dogues in 2011/12 brought a staggering return of 20 goals and 16 assists – three of these strikes came in his final match for the club after some less than orthodox preparation.
As his former teammate Rio Mavuba told The Independent: “We decided to go have a little drink. A little drink that dragged on somewhat. The following morning, Eden was still drunk. That evening against Nancy, not even with 30 minutes played, Eden had already bagged a hat-trick.”
Obviously this was an extreme example, but Hazard’s general approach to what is – at its heart – a children’s game, has always been refreshingly simple: have fun.
During his final season at Chelsea, Hazard explained this unique view of the sport to France Football: “I don’t know if I’m apart. I may be apart from the best players in the world. Because the best think about goals, assists, trophies. And I have never been like that. So yes, maybe…afterwards, in professional football, there are a lot of players like me who want to have fun.”
And at Chelsea, that’s exactly what he did. Incidentally, a tidal wave of goals, assists and trophies flowed during his seven years at Stamford Bridge as Hazard became arguably the most exciting Premier League player of the past decade.
Hazard thrived in a Chelsea shirt when he could bounce passes off a focal point through the middle, flicking an incoming ball round the corner – with his back to goal – and sharply spinning to collect the return. This is why he described Olivier Giroud as the ‘best target man in the world’ and a ‘pleasure to play with’. However, this propensity to spin on his ankle is considered the root of his injury woes at Real Madrid this season.
Yet, prior to his Spanish sojourn, Hazard’s appearance record was remarkable, clocking up at least 30 league games for 11 consecutive years. Despite the revolving door policy of Chelsea’s managers, Hazard won over every incumbent. Even José Mourinho, a spiky character at the best of times, eventually came to overlook Hazard’s particularly casual approach to defending.
In their second season together, Chelsea won the Premier League title and Hazard was crowned PFA Players’ Player of the Year. When highlighting an opponent in team meetings, Mourinho was even known to say he was ‘no Maradona, no Messi, no Hazard’.
Even though his talent has taken him to the height of the sport, Hazard still plays with the same freedom of a kid in an oversize replica shirt, kicking the ball around in the garden with his brothers.
As he told Chelsea’s website: “Like I said before, I just want to enjoy my football. If people remember me as a good player it’s fine. I hope they will! But I just try to give my best in the moment. That’s it.”