Hazard's skills honed in garden, feted by Zidane evident at Chelsea
Eden Hazard has one goal and five assists in Chelsea's first nine goals this season
Praise from France icon Zinedine Zidane put pressure on Hazard from a young age
Hazard, twice the French league MVP, came to Chelsea for €40 million this year
In May 2010, Eden Hazard, then 19, was named Ligue 1's Young Player of the Year for the second season running after an impressive campaign with Lille. Zinedine Zidane turned up in Paris to give him the award.
"Young Hazard, he's a good player," Zidane said. "When you play as if you have already been around for five or six years, I find that really impressive."
It was an unlikely turning point in Hazard's career. He had already turned down an offer from Anderlecht because the twice-weekly three-hour commute from his home in Braine-Le-Comte would have been too disruptive. Instead he joined Lille at 14, after its scout approached him following a 5-0 defeat to a female Under-17s county side.
Lille had fast-tracked the youngster through its youth sides, and at 16, on Nov. 25, 2007, gave him his first-team senior debut against Nancy. Hazard's father, Thierry, a former player for La Louviere, thought it was too soon, but Jean-Michel Vandamme, the director of Lille's youth academy, had little doubt.
"He was faster than the other kids, he saw everything quicker than them, so we said, 'OK, let's not make him waste more time,'" he told French TV station Canal Plus. "We didn't really have a choice."
Zidane's comments put Hazard under pressure for the first time in his career. Hazard remembers being proud and happy about the ceremony -- also "feeling weird that the greatest player in the world was talking about me" -- and he said to himself, "Right, people are going to watch me a bit more closely now."
That only inspired him to play even better: the following season, Hazard was named Ligue 1's Player of the Year, and Lille won the title. This has been the running theme of Hazard's career to date. He is given a challenge. He passes it.
"I've seen other kids who were as good as him on a basic level, but I've rarely seen someone so capable of adapting to the top level as him," Vandamme said. "I think with Eden it was all in his head. He's very strong mentally."
It might help that not just his father, but also his mother, Carine, was a footballer: she was a center forward in the Belgian third division and still shows her kids videos of her scoring goals and celebrating with Robbie Keane-esque somersaults. There was a field behind the Hazards' back garden: young Eden would jump over the fence and spend hours practicing his tricks there. Hazard invoked the garden this week, telling France Football magazine that he doesn't think about the €40 million he cost Chelsea but just pretends he's playing in that garden, with some rats from the nearby river for company. "You're playing against Real Madrid?" he said. "Pretend you're at home, and you'll see, it will be fine."
Confidence has never been a problem for Hazard but that, in itself, might be a problem. Mikael Landreau, his former teammate at Lille, explained why: "Eden is extremely gifted, and for the very gifted, it's like those kids in class at school: you can sometimes think you know it all and the danger is to fall into a sense of self-satisfaction. That's why he needs to be at a big club, working with top-class players around him."
It was obvious that he had outgrown Lille: by the time he left, he had won a second successive Ligue 1 Player of the Year award, his 20 goals and 15 assists almost single-handedly propelling Lille into the final Champions League qualification place. Sometimes he would arrive late in training, forget his shin pads or not do up his laces. Every time, coach Rudi Garcia would bawl him out. Garcia made a point of not treating Hazard any differently to his teammates, even though he knew he was "a pearl," as he put it.
"The danger is you think, 'I've got to be kind to him in case he doesn't give his best,' but I think that's the wrong way to approach it," Garcia said.
It did not take long for Hazard to light up the Premier League: one goal and five assists in Chelsea's first nine goals of the league season, including a full-length run of the pitch and unselfish square pass to Branislav Ivanovic (against Reading) and a back heel for Fernando Torres (against Newcastle). It all seemed so easy for Hazard. The French press dubbed him "Prince of England."
The fixture list has been kind to Chelsea so far, and though it sits top of the table, it has yet to be tested by a top-half side. If Hazard's first three games were electric, his last three -- against Queens Park Rangers (0-0), Juventus (2-2) and Stoke (1-0) -- were quieter. Of course it takes time to adapt, even if the player himself has said it's not so different to Ligue 1, as he gets kicked in both countries. Six games from a 21-year-old is not enough to draw any serious conclusions.
Next month will be a different challenge entirely: league opponents include Arsenal (away, this weekend), Spurs and Manchester United, with away Champions League trips to Nordsjaelland and Shakhtar Donetsk to come. At that point, the honeymoon will almost be over.
Hazard has admitted that he has never had a setback in his career -- unsurprisingly, considering he ended each of his first four full seasons with a Young Player or Player of the Year award -- although he had a few minor disciplinary issues with previous Belgium coach Georges Leekens. "I've never had hard times, I've always been happy with what I can do," he told Canal Plus.
When Hazard left Lille, club president Michel Seydoux was asked what he would miss most about him. Seydoux, a film producer, vividly compared Hazard's tricks to a large restaurant menu with so many enticing dishes that you want them all; but above all, he said he would miss the mischievous wink that Hazard gave him before every home game.
"It was as if to say, 'Boss, I will do the job,'" Seydoux said. "He was focused but relaxed, and that was part of his strength of character."
Having the tricks and the skills is one thing, but all those who know Hazard best -- the likes of Vandamme and Garcia, Seydoux and Landreau -- also talk about his mentality and his confidence, which is not to be mistaken for arrogance. If his introduction into English football gave us a taste of what he is capable of, the next month will prove how ready he is for the challenge ahead. Although I doubt he has started winking at Chelsea owner Roman Abamovich just yet.