Eden Hazard's Retirement Allows Us To Remember The Outstanding Player He Once Was

Forget the Real Madrid years, Chelsea's Hazard was a class apart
17:00, 10 Oct 2023

Eden Hazard has retired from professional football at the age of 32. The winger had been without a club since leaving Real Madrid at the end of last season. All told, his spell at the Bernabeu was a car crash played out in agonising slow motion. One of the most exciting talents in world football lost his abilities in front of our very eyes. It is an undignified end that no one could have predicted when Hazard moved to La Liga for an £89 million fee.

But retirement affords a finality of context that helps eulogise a talent. Once a footballer is untethered from the confines of the modern game, their later faults cease to be a going concern. An appreciation is allowed to unfurl as the player becomes enshrined not in the pale imitation they became but within the glorious fullness of their abilities. Hazard is free now. No longer a passenger in a sport that had passed him by. We are free to perceive the immense player he was rather than the disappointment he became.

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Hazard’s journey echoes that of many modern heroes. Adriano relegated himself through lack of application into a figure of fun. But with his retirement we chose to remember the electric ‘Imperador’ of Inter Milan and Brazil. The goal-getter who could bend opposition defences to his will. Fernando Torres’ status as a Liverpool and Atletico Madrid legend has outlived his failures at Chelsea. Kaka is thought of as the Ballon d’Or winning superstar than the mercurial waif who couldn’t follow up his promise in the age of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. 

The Ballon d’Or was once touted as Hazard’s birthright. It was easy to see why. At Chelsea the Belgian had all the makings of a superstar to match the vaunted likes of Messi and Ronaldo. It wasn’t just the 110 goals in 352 appearances. It was the style with which he achieved them. The magnetic dribbling. The close control to make even the most accomplished defender look decidedly Sunday League. At his best, Stamford Bridge was a playground for perhaps the last great improvisational talent.

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Football is about systems and methodology now more than ever. But Hazard wasn’t a technician so much as he was a painter. The field was his canvas in the same way it had been for old masters like George Best and Johan Cruyff. He is a link not only to football’s recent past but to a lost age.

By the time he arrived at Real Madrid, the sport had no time for mercurial aesthetes. While he had been a ruthlessly effective part of two Premier League title wins, a pair of Europa Leagues and multiple cup wins at Chelsea, Los Blancos were a different proposition entirely. At the Bernabeu success is not so much a cherished blessing as a minimum requirement. 

There was also the personal transition from talisman and undisputed best player at Chelsea to merely one of many jewels in the Madrid crown. At a club that already had Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema and Luka Modric, he was never going to be the main man. It is an adjustment that had claimed many previous Real signings in the past. The club by its nature seeks out the best players from other teams. But due to the way their squads are built, those signings must fight to prove themselves all over again in Spain.

Hazard failed to make the requisite impact. His fitness issues and lack of edge when he did play led to a single goal in 22 games. It was a pattern that played out for the rest of his four-year tenure. Hazard never played more than 23 games in all competitions and never scored more than 3 goals in a season. Meanwhile, his injuries and overall fitness levels continually failed him. The malaise carried over to his international side too. Hazard scored just three goals for Belgium after joining Real Madrid despite playing over 20 games.

But retirement affords us the chance to remember the player Hazard was. The last of an exciting, dying breed of footballing improvisers. The man whose winning goal against Manchester United won Chelsea an FA Cup in 2018. Whose brace against Arsenal sealed a Europa League title in 2019. Whose goals fired Chelsea to two Premier League titles. Who helped take Belgium to the 2018 World Cup semi finals and an eventual third-place finish. 

This is the Eden Hazard we are now free to remember. His career didn’t end as it should have, but the Belgian accomplished more than almost all of his peers during his time in the spotlight. Safe travels, Eden.

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