Eden Hazard: 'I'd say I'm closer to Messi'
During our chat with Eden Hazard at Chelsea’s Cobham training ground, he shifts constantly in his seat in between questions, which he listens to patiently in English before answering mostly in French with the help of a translator.
It’s just as well for his parents’ sake that the winger and his three younger brothers had an outlet for all that youthful vigour while growing up – the Hazards lived next door to a football pitch.
“It definitely helped my development,“ the 23-year-old remembers. “You just had to cross the fence and you got there. The best part was for my dad, because he didn’t have to change the whole house with us breaking all the doors and windows.“
Except for maybe Barcelona’s fabled La Masia academy, you couldn’t dream up a better environment for creating a world-class footballer. Both of Hazard’s parents played the game, before becoming sports teachers. His father Thierry played semi-professionally as a defensive midfielder in Belgium’s second tier, and his eldest son diplomatically says his dad is still the best in the family, with just a hint of a smile. His mother, Carine, was a striker in the Belgian Women’s First Division, who stopped playing only when three months pregnant with Eden.
We ask whether it was inevitable, with his parents and the pitch next door, that Hazard would become a professional footballer. “Not inevitable,“ he answers. “My parents didn’t really push me to be a footballer. If I wanted to do piano they would have pushed me to do piano. But, since I was a kid, I’ve always had the ball in my hands – and I’ve always wanted to play.“
His brothers are travelling the same path. Thorgan, Hazard’s junior by two years, is also on Chelsea’s books, while 18-year-old Kylian plays in the Belgian Second Division for Royal White Star Bruxelles and nine-year-old Ethan is in the youth academy at another Belgian team – Tubize. We ask about their back-garden kickabouts, which we suspect must be out of this world.
“We used to do that a lot but now it’s over,“ says Hazard. “We have kids, so we have a lot of things to do when we go to see the family. But we still play with the youngest one sometimes to make him happy, to show him who’s the best!“
Hazard’s first football memory also involves a family connection, and climbing over the fence on to that football field. “My uncle was a coach for a local team,“ he explains. “I was three or four years old and I went over the barrier to train with the team. That was my first training – my uncle just let me train with everyone. That’s where the story begins.“
Scouted with girls
It’s a story that takes an unexpected turn, as Hazard explains how he got his first break: “It was a game in one of the areas of Belgium where I played against the women’s national under-17s team. We were about 12, and lost 4-0. I played horribly, but it was the first time I met the recruiters from Lille.“
Hazard played five seasons at Lille, helping them to the French title in 2011-12 with 20 goals, and was linked with a number of clubs before opting to join Chelsea in the summer of 2012. Quick, skilful and a strong finisher with either foot, he’s an integral part of Jose Mourinho’s title challenge.
“I think we are one of the favourites,“ he says, opting for the same cautious tone as his manager. “We’re not the favourites, but we’re part of the top three. Unfortunately it doesn’t depend only on us.“
The Chelsea squad is a mixture of young talents and experienced players – and Hazard says he provides a relaxed presence. “I joke a lot my friend,“ he says in English, before switching to French to explain. “I’m a very chilled personality. I like to have fun, I also know when to be serious. But I don’t need to be too crazy; we have enough of that in the changing room.“ Unsurprisingly, he cites big-haired David Luiz as the source of much mirth.
Hazard settled well at Chelsea, scoring 13 club goals in his first season (in which, including internationals, he made 69 appearances). As first choice down the left, he has 17 so far this term.
The major difference between France and England, says Hazard, is the intensity of the game. “There’s less breaks in an English game,“ he explains. “I have to do the same efforts over and over in the Premier League.“
He’s strong, but his stature (he’s just 5ft 7ins) and skilful play means Hazard has been on the receiving end of more than his fair share of late tackles. After Chelsea’s second Champions League match with Galatasaray, he even posted a picture of his ankle – sock torn and bloodied. “It’s been the same for three, four years,“ he says. “I’m getting used to it. I get hit a lot. I just hope I never get injured.“
He’s spoken in the past of wanting to reach the level of the likes of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.
“If I had to choose, I’d say by my body type and style of playing means I’m closer to Messi,“ says Hazard. “Ronaldo is more of an athlete – he’s good at everything. He runs fast, he’s strong. So I would say I’m closer to Messi. But obviously I don’t score as many goals as he does.“
Hazard is, however, very clear on what he needs to add to his game to reach their level: “Consistency. Being able to be at the same level with the same impact on the game for 90 minutes, to be more decisive and make the exact right move at the right moment. And obviously to score as many goals as possible.“
Although he identifies more with Messi, we suggest there are more parallels between Hazard’s desired trajectory and that of Ronaldo. “Looking at what I’m doing now, it’s looking like it’s going to be the same type of evolution,“
Hazard agrees. “When I was in Lille, I was watching a lot of Ronaldo’s games when he was at Manchester United. In his last year, he scored a lot of goals [the Portuguese hit 25 in his last season at Old Trafford; 43 the season before]. This is what I would like to get – it’s my responsibility to work hard to get there.“
Hazard harbours ambitions of emulating Messi and Ronaldo further, by winning the Ballon d’Or – the annual prize awarded to the world’s best player. Age is on his side. It’s difficult to believe – as we listen to him talk about working hard on and off the pitch, and spending time with his two young children – that he’s still just 23.
He says growing up quickly is simply “part of the job“ of being a footballer. It’s a job that Hazard was seemingly born to do – and we have a feeling that the best is still to come.
Amit Katwala @amitkatwala