Eden Hazard following through on plan to become world-class talent
Jean-Michel Vandamme remembers the moment well. It was 2005, and the director of the Lille training center was meeting Eden Hazard, then 14, for the first time. Vandamme had the conversation he normally has with his young players - "Where do you see yourself in five years?" - and was struck by the youngster's response.
"He was not big-headed about it, but without saying so, he implied that he intended to become one of the best players in the world," he told French TV station Canal Plus. "I had never seen such an ability to draw a career plan in advance and follow it."
Given his recent man-of-the-match performances for Chelsea, for whom Hazard has ripped apart Manchester City and scored a hat trick against Newcastle as Jose Mourinho's "little horse" sits top of the Premier League for the first time, Hazard's career plan seems to be going rather well. And it is on his own terms.
Lille's former general manager Xavier Thuilot was at his first contract re-negotiation and while everyone was shouting about what was best for Hazard, the player himself, then 17, stuck up his hand and quietly said, "I want to stay at Lille, I'm not ready to leave yet."
In the last two transfer windows, Hazard has been linked with Paris Saint-Germain, whose captain Thiago Silva told L'Equipe last weekend that "we need players like Eden Hazard." The Belgian's head was not turned by the public flirting and in the same newspaper Tuesday, he spoke of his commitment to Chelsea. "I have a plan, I want to become the best player [in the world] at Chelsea."
He's already the best at Chelsea, with numbers that top the charts: more goals, touches and passes in the final third than any other teammates. His performance in the 1-0 win at Manchester City was outstanding, and not just praised in England and Belgium.
"Hazard has something magical: pure football, that's what Eden Hazard's magic is," wrote Dutch publication Voetbal International after the game. "He floats over the pitch with class and style and still he waltzed past human walls like Yaya Toure and Vincent Kompany."
There have been some bumps along the way, not least his suspension for three games, later reduced to one, after falling out with then-Belgium coach George Leekens for eating a hamburger inside the stadium after he was subbed off early in a Euro 2012 qualifier against Turkey. Hazard came out of "Hamburger-gate" rather well and it was Leekens who was seen as the out-of-touch disciplinarian failing to manage his star talent.
"When you have a rough diamond like Eden, you have to polish it and build the team around him," former Belgium defender Philippe Albert told L'Equipe.
Added Enzo Scifo, Belgium's mercurial midfielder from the mid-1980s, who had similar problems with Leekens: "Nonchalance is confused with arrogance in Belgium."
Then there was the red card he was shown in Chelsea's League Cup semifinal defeat to Swansea last season, when with his side 2-0 down and the clock ticking, he kicked a ball-boy who was lying on the ball. It was an act of frustration but nothing more: the ball-boy was 17, only five years younger than Hazard, and, noted Daniel Taylor wryly in The Guardian, knew all about "the art of time-wasting and exaggerating injury and who almost certainly learned these tricks from watching the Premier League."
In early-November, just after a defeat to Newcastle, Hazard traveled to Lille to kick off a Ligue 1 game and he lost his passport. Mourinho was furious with him and dropped him for the next game, a Champions League win over Schalke.
"I was back for the next game and scored a penalty, so it shows you're not dead if you make a mistake," Hazard told L'Equipe. "It shows his intelligence, he keeps an eye on me as a father would on his son."
He barely needs to: these are the mistakes of youth, not malevolence. Hazard understands the importance of diet and rest, and is happiest hanging out with his family and two young sons (one of whom is called Leo, who might or might not be named after you-know-who). The question everyone now wants to know is: how good can he become?
"Of course I want to be one of the best players in the world," Hazard told Kristof Terreur of Belgian paper Het Laatste Nieuws last week. "I've always known I'm a good player, but I never noticed that I was one of the best. If I work hard and concentrate on these little things, I might come closer to players like Messi and Ronaldo. I don't know if I'm capable of achieving the same things that they did, but why not? I¹m taking the challenge! I'm doing well now, but I still have a long way to go. I have to become more regular, score more and become a real killer. I'm still not perfect."
Belgium's record cap-holder, Jan Ceulemans, sees Hazard as more of an Andres Iniesta or Xavi Hernandez while ex-Chelsea forward Didier Drogba, who will face Hazard later this month for Galatasaray in the Champions League, also thought the comparison unfair.
"Everyone talks about Messi and Ronaldo but in Hazard, Chelsea has both those players in one," he told L'Equipe.
From a scoring point of view, Hazard has a long way to go: since 2011-12, Opta stats show that Hazard¹s goals, 42 in 113 games, and shots per game, 2.2, lag behind Cristiano Ronaldo (133 in 120 games, 7.1 shots per game) and Messi (135 in 110, 5.2 shots).
Perhaps the more pertinent question is not so much whether Hazard can emulate two figures of the game that play for teams so dominant in their national league that they are able to rack up PlayStation numbers, but if he can continue this form for the rest of the season, and into the World Cup.
First, the season: "If we play every game like we did against Manchester City, then we will finish the season as champions of the Premier League," he told L'Equipe. "But the Champions League, there are better teams than us in there this year." (Note he is already adopting the traits of his coach Mourinho in writing off his team in the chase for trophies.)
The Belgium question is an important one too. Just like Ronaldo and Messi in the early years of their careers, Hazard has struggled to play as well for his country as for his club, and in World Cup qualifying it was Kevin de Bruyne, sold by Chelsea to Wolfsburg in the January transfer window, who was Belgium's outstanding player. It was only after coach Marc Wilmots agreed to give Hazard the No. 10 shirt he craved, before the crucial qualifying games against Serbia and Macedonia, that Hazard put in his best performances for the Red Devils.
"He doesn't feel any pressure but there's no doubt that his current form means that it's mounting before the World Cup," Terreur, who is writing a story almost every day on Hazard for his paper, told SI.com. "But he likes to be challenged. He admits that he takes it too easy when everything is going well, so having Mourinho as a coach is a godsend for him. He has now realized that he can be a world-class player, and that's the big difference this season. We just hope the Belgium team can profit from what he's learned at Chelsea."
There is one more element to the Hazard story. He has three younger brothers, one of whom, Thorgan, recently won Belgium's Golden Boot award. He signed for Chelsea at the same time as Hazard, but everyone laughed politely when Hazard said, "He's better than me."
But no longer is Thorgan as seen as "the brother of Eden." He is a different player, more of a central midfielder, and his consistency in Belgium has impressed Chelsea's scouts this season. There are another two waiting in the wings: Kylian, 17, and Ethan, 9. But the best Hazard, Eden swears, was father Thierry, a former professional for La Louviere in Belgium. Even off the pitch, the guy has an answer for everything.