A few minutes spent observing Eden Hazard’s mesmerising dribbles, astonishing bursts of pace and steely, determined glares leave you in no doubt as to the direction the young Belgian’s career is heading. He may only be 20 years of age, but the diminutive Lille midfielder already seems destined to play at the very highest level.
With his numerous qualities having become common knowledge over the past couple of years, everyone agrees he constitutes an exceptional talent, deserving of the various plaudits he has managed to attract in a relatively short space of time. FIFA.com talked exclusively with the rising star about the pressures of the international game, his club’s chances of success this season, and his plans for the future.
Hazard was born in the Belgian town of La Louviere to parents who were themselves former footballers. Moreover, they possessed a ‘can-do’ attitude towards their son’s football dreams, encouraging him to play the beautiful game from dusk till dawn. Before long he had stood out from his peers, something that did not go unnoticed by scouting teams from over the border, notably from Lille.
At the tender age of 14, Hazard made the short trip to Northern France to join Les Dogues’ youth academy, a move that would signal the start of his sporting adventures.
Following 18 months of improvement and development from Hazard, Lille first-team coach Claude Puel decided that he was ready for the big time, and the player’s initial eye-catching performances proved the former Monaco supremo entirely right.
Team captain Rio Mavuba was one of many to be instantly won over by the midfield man’s skills: “He’s a great player, with an immense talent. He has everything a modern footballer needs. He’s actually not that big, but he’s so fast. He’s also very difficult to dispossess and his finishing is top notch.” Hazard had clearly begun to make his mark, but the best was yet to come.
During the 2008/09 season, he continued to impress, scoring four times and going about his business on the pitch with the air of an experienced veteran. The performances of Lille’s No26 were strong enough to merit the first of many call-ups to the Belgian national side. He then topped off a marvellous season by picking up the Ligue 1 Young Player of the Year award.
Hazard’s second full campaign in France followed a similar pattern, the only difference this time being the greater degree of consistency in his brilliant displays, which left many opponents floundering to keep up. As well as dispatching five goals, he proved he could create them as well by notching a total of eight assists. At the end of the campaign, he was nominated for both the Player of the Year and Young Player of the Year awards, and won the latter accolade for the second consecutive year.
The early stages of season 2010/11 saw the skilful playmaker encounter the first real setback of his blossoming career. Hampered by a bout of inconsistency, a dejected Hazard was in danger of losing his way. “The first two months were a bit tough,” the young Belgian admitted to FIFA.com. "I wouldn’t say that I began doubting my abilities, but I definitely went through a really patchy spell."
It was at this point that Belgium coach Georges Leekens decided that some tough love was in order, leaving Hazard on the sidelines during his country’s 2-0 UEFA EURO 2012 qualifying win over Kazakhstan in October. “I like Eden a lot – his considerable talent is not in doubt, but he has to work harder," explained Leekens. "It’s now up to him to improve, both physically and mentally. I’m not here to do him any favours. My job is to motivate him, because Belgium needs Eden to be at his best."
Lille coach Rudi Garcia was quick to defend his star player, taking a swipe at the hype surrounding Hazard: “Eden is just 19 years old. In my opinion, too much is expected of him, and too quickly as well. I’m not trying to make things worse, but too many things have been said about him; everyone needs to calm down a little.”
There was, however, no trace of bitterness in Hazard’s voice as he reflected on the incident: “I’ve learnt a lot during those few weeks, mentally speaking. And since then things have got better. The national side has had a fair bit to do with that – I get a lot out of being a part of it.” Whatever the reason, he has rapidly regained the fine form of previous seasons.
Following Hazard’s lead, Lille set about stringing an impressive run of results together and currently sit proudly atop Ligue 1, a position that has their long-suffering fans dreaming of glory. “But people said that about us last year as well, and then it all fell apart, and we actually ended up outside the Champions League places,” pointed out the midfield schemer. “Let’s wait and see. We just need to keep our heads – we won’t really know till May if Lille can go that extra step.”
Hazard is equally cautious about talk of a possible move away from the Stade Lille-Metropole: “Real Madrid is a legendary football club, as are Barcelona, Manchester United and many others. All of the big clubs make my mouth water. I wouldn’t rule out any of them.”
What is certain is that when the time comes, the race to sign the 17-time international will be a congested one. In the meantime, he has more pressing issues to deal with, such as how to unlock the Finland defence in the friendly encounter with Belgium scheduled for this Wednesday evening.
Ahead of the match, Hazard was positive about the general future for the Red Devils. “Belgian football has gone through some tough times recently, but there are young talents coming through. We have a new generation of players that have proved themselves at different age categories, such as Romelu Lukaku, Kevin de Bruyn, Jelle Vossen or myself, and who are trying to breathe new life into the Belgian national side.”
Hazard then signed off with an upbeat message that will be heartening for his country’s fans: “We all need to keep improving and developing, but I can assure you that Belgium will be a force to be reckoned with in a few years’ time.”