Chelsea and Eden Hazard have been heading towards this point for a while. At the time, it felt as if the club’s failure to re-qualify for the Champions League would instruct his future and, on the basis of remarks he made following Belgium’s 2-0 win over England in Saturday’s third-place play-off, that seems to be the case.
Eden Hazard: “After 6 wonderful years at Chelsea it might be time to discover something different. Certainly after this World Cup. I can decide if I want to stay or go, but Chelsea will make the final decision – if they want to let me go. You know my preferred destination.” #cfc pic.twitter.com/mtuZAXIv9A
— Kristof Terreur 📰 (@HLNinEngeland) July 14, 2018
As far as player power goes, it’s mild. This was not an ultimatum or any precursor to strike activity, but it’s the first public indication that now, at 27, he sees a future away from Stamford Bridge.
It’s understandable. His desire to play for Real Madrid is not a well-kept secret and now, with Cristiano Ronaldo and his gravity-altering ego having departed the Spanish capital for Juventus, there’s actually room for a player of Hazard’s profile. Given that he has now won everything worth winning in England, he’s also likely mindful of the need to add a European Cup to his mantel – and aware that, were he to stay at Chelsea, that would likely remain beyond his reach.
More importantly perhaps, there is also now a small space at the top of the game’s hierarchy. The era of Ronaldo and Messi isn’t quite done, but as and when it does come to an end he will need to be in position to challenge for a Ballon d’Or. That may sound like an outlandish claim, particularly with Neymar threatening a return to Spain and Kylian Mbappe growing stronger each year, but it’s an aim he could absolutely realise in Madrid. He’s had a magnificent World Cup and if was to pair that sort of form with the right collection of silverware, then he would have a very strong claim. For as long as Mbappe and Neymar are playing in France, they will be at a disadvantage.
Supporters will most likely take issue with that logic – and, to be fair, it is hard to swallow. Team rewards should matter more than individual prizes but, increasingly, players are showing that that’s no longer the case. Eden Hazard has never seemed driven by a need for that sort of attention, but eventually – irrespective of personality – it becomes inevitable: why should other players be elevated ahead of him on account of where he plays?
And he has certainly been a victim of that. It’s not his fault and it’s not Chelsea’s, but there’s a sense that he doesn’t quite get his dues because he plays in England. Messi and Ronaldo have been the best players on the planet for the better part of the decade, but Hazard belongs in any conversation involving their heirs – in fact, he should be one of the first names mentioned. Yet he’s not. Recently, even players like Paulo Dybala, Robert Lewandowski and Kevin De Bruyne have been discussed ahead of him and, respectfully, that’s cannot be right. Hazard has been better for longer than any of them.
That gnaws at a player over time. It’s an injustice. Perhaps it’s one which can only be cured by this sort of move? One which involves a vast fee, a whole heap of pressure, but also the sort of bright light which is ultimately used to properly anoint a truly world-class forward.
To say that he’s owed a transfer is wrong. What is worth bearing in mind, though, are the nonsense cycles which he has endured at Stamford Bridge. He may have been complicit in Jose Mourinho’s sacking, but he has generally been a bystander to the club’s hiring-and-firing policy and been forced to watch momentum periodically being vented away. In conjunction with a very hit-and-miss transfer policy, one which has not offered him the kind of support to which he’s entitled, the case for his remaining in London isn’t particularly strong.
That’s perhaps where he differs from many of his contemporaries. While there are some clear examples of players seeking the limelight and needing to be their team’s sole bread-winner, with Hazard the opposite seems to be true. He’s at his best when he’s one of many and Chelsea’s failure to surround him with complementing talent has been to his detriment. He has still performed admirably, but it’s natural (for him and the world) to wonder what he might be able to achieve if accompanied by a genuinely all-star cast.
The Belgian says he loves the club and there’s nothing which he says or does which suggests otherwise, but a player’s career is short and this could be a rare opportunity for him. It’s also one, putting tribalism to one side, that he probably deserves.
No, he’s not owed a quick sale – football is a business – but he deserves the opportunity to ascend to a bigger stage.
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Also published on Medium.