“Maybe one day we will no longer have Eden Hazard,” lamented then-Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho in a press conference soliloquy back in 2015. Mourinho shined attention towards the lack of protection Hazard received from referees and the recklessness of Premier League defenders who didn’t hesitate to kick their way to stopping the winger’s near-impossible dribbles out of tight spaces. Mourinho’s prescient words came to life years later when Hazard announced his retirement in a modern way, via an Instagram post during the middle of an international break in October.
The moment from which Hazard never recovered has long been mythologized on social media. It was a Champions League match between Real Madrid and PSG in 2019, in which one of Hazard’s trademark turns was met by a tackle from Belgium teammate Thomas Meunier. With whispers of Hazard not living up to his $120 million transfer fee, he would miss the next 16 matches with a microfracture in his ankle. After appearing in 245 matches over seven seasons with Chelsea, Hazard would play in just 54 La Liga games over the next four years before retiring. Hazard scored 16 league goals in his final season at Chelsea; he scored four in Spain, with no goals coming in the last two years.
Not that we look at Hazard as a victim. There were warning signs even before Hazard’s injury against PSG, with club president Florentino Perez reportedly immediately doubting the transfer when Hazard showed up to his first Real Madrid preseason overweight (Mourinho often derided Hazard’s lack of dedication to training). Mourinho looms large in the winger’s development as Hazard’s father wanted the Portuguese manager to give his son “a little more ego” but still letting him be a “fantastic dad and wonderful husband,” as if it was one or the other.
Considering the combination of his training habits and trophies, Mourinho technically did achieve the objectives of Hazard finding greatness on the field with some sort of perspective off it. The hours following Hazard’s retirement were filled with testaments to his greatness, but there was also a melancholy that there could have, and should have, been a little more.
“You can only imagine what he could be with a super professional attitude in training,” said Mourinho.
Yet the raw ability turned into tangible achievements and trophies. Mourinho claimed that Hazard was a better player than Cristiano Ronaldo during the 2014-15 season, in which he won his first league title with Chelsea and was named the Premier League Player of the Season. It wasn’t just about the individual goals, but also the rangey dribbles and half turns turned into counter attacks from inside his own half that gave the feeling that he could take over a match at any time. One of his most memorable goals came during an especially toxic match against Tottenham in the 2016 season. Hazard immediately beat two players while receiving the ball on the half turn while attracting a third. He played a one-two with Diego Costa before finishing with a first time strike. The sequence showed off the dribbling, the acceleration, the free-flowing movement, and the striking technique, which in turn secured Leicester City the Premier League title.
Hazard would lead Chelsea to another league title two years later, this time under Antonio Conte (leading to this memorable goal against Arsenal in which he threw an opponent down while taking on an entire defensive line). On the surface, the left winger role in Conte’s 3-4-3 formation seemed like it would give Hazard enough defensive cover to suit his freewheeling style. But a clash between player and coach was inevitable with their contrasting personalities. Hazard later remarked that he found the Italian coaching style of Conte and Maurizio Sarri “rigid and repetitive” as opposed to the movement games under Zinedine Zidane at Real Madrid.
Hazard also complained about Conte’s counter attacking methods on several occasions, saying that Chelsea could have played Manchester City for three hours and he still wouldn’t have touched the ball or how against Barcelona, he “might have touched 25 balls and 15 were flying towards my head.” Sarri, for his part, described Hazard as “more an individual player than a leader.”
“He can win a match in two minutes, sometimes one, but at the moment he is not a leader,” Sarri dug in.
But the casualness was part of Hazard’s brilliance. Plus, we never saw him have to readapt his game as he aged. In a roundabout way, never seeing Hazard fade away in smaller leagues is its own sort of immortality. And an underrated aspect of Hazard’s move to Real Madrid was that it came at a relatively late age of 28 years old. The Spanish club would gain neither the value of youth nor the resell potential of getting rid of a player towards the end of their prime.
Hazard never got a chance to justify his price tag, not that Real Madrid and Carlo Ancelotti even noticed. In fact, Hazard’s injury may have worked in their favor as it gave space for the rise of Vinicius Junior.
Known for his warm relationships with players, Ancelotti remained unusually distant with Hazard. Hazard simply stated that “we don’t talk to each other.” Ancelotti added that while there was mutual respect, the lack of communication between the two came down to differing personalities.
“Look, it’s not that we have a cold relationship,” Ancelotti attempted to reason.
The injuries, age, and differences with managers added up quickly. Real Madrid would win another Champions League in 2022, with Hazard an unused substitute in the final. There is no quicker path to go from world class signing to forgotten superstar than getting replaced by a younger phenom with the team still winning trophies.
The game quickly moved on from Hazard, with his vacant space filled by the next explosive playmaking winger. And Chelsea so moved on under new ownership that Didier Drogba lamented that he doesn’t recognize his own club anymore. All we have left are the minutes-long YouTube highlights of his slalomy dribbles and arguments of what should have been.
Considering the current financial landscape, it is a small upset that he never went to the Saudi Pro League or MLS once his Real Madrid career was finished. Ronaldo is rumored to be making over $200 million per season with Al-Nassr FC, with Neymar making a comparable salary at Al-Hilal. Messi won the only trophy eluding him with the 2022 World Cup, then got a monetary piece of the over 280,000 subscriptions to Apple TV+ he drove after a move to MLS. In another footballing world, maybe it would have been Hazard also making paradigm-shifting transfers instead of being frozen out on the bench.
Thus, instead of the tearful goodbye in front of an adoring home crowd, Hazard’s retirement came via Instagram on a Tuesday morning in October. The usual social media appreciations and highlight reels from fan accounts followed, attempting to grasp his greatness in small clips. But it seemed as if Hazard had already moved on.