“I want to achieve perfection,” says Eden Hazard, rocking back in his chair with a boyish half-smile.
It would be an astonishing way to kick the conversation off, had the statement come from the mouth of an average Premier League footballer. Yet in relation to Hazard, the hubris and ambition are somehow forgivable and realistic.
The Belgian wunderkind is good enough to have been named Young Player of the Year in France aged just 17, and bordering on great enough to have repeated that feat in the Premier League last season, scoring 17 goals overall.
Hazard’s potential greatness is what has brought us here, to a monolithic Surrey leisure centre. Last season was Hazard’s coming-out party; the year when he partially uncloaked himself as a world-class star. This time around, the expectations have been ramped up. The 23-year-old must, along with the likes of Diego Costa, share the brunt of Chelsea’s attack.
Yet talking to Hazard, you get the distinct feeling that behind the lofty, self-imposed ambitions, he is not entirely comfortable with the level of hype that now surrounds him wherever he goes. For starters, he is quick to dismiss any suggestion that he might be approaching the stratospheric levels of performance of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.
“I am not better than them this year,” says Hazard, who was being unveiled as the new pack star of FIFA 15. “They are here and I am still here,” holding out both hands to illustrate his point.
Hazard’s gesture was borne out on the pitch at the World Cup in Brazil this summer. While Messi dragged Argentina almost single-handedly to the final against Germany, Hazard cut a subdued figure as part of a Belgium side overburdened with individual talent that collectively underachieved in bowing out in the quarter-finals. Not that the player sees the tournament in quite such negative terms.
“[The World Cup] could have gone better for me,” he admits. “I did two good games but it wasn’t enough. We tried everything but sometimes you make one mistake and that is it.”
Hazard made mistakes for Chelsea last season, most notably during the Champions League semi-final second leg against Atletico Madrid at Stamford Bridge – a performance that earned a strong rebuke from his manager.
“He [Hazard] is not the kind of player to sacrifice himself for the team,” said Jose Mourinho after the 3-1 loss that tipped Chelsea out of Europe. “He’s not mentally ready to look to his left-back and leave his life for him.”
Perhaps the stinging nature of those comments explains Hazard’s reticence to compare himself with the best in the world. Working under Mourinho is a constant tightrope walk between aiming for the stars while keeping one’s ego firmly tied to terra firma.
“It is a pleasure to play under Mourinho,” Hazard insists. Then he offers a note of warning: “It is important to show respect. Sometimes when you lose one game he is sad and he shows other people. You mustn’t smile when you lose, you have to be sad like other people. You have to win every game.”
Mourinho’s brutally effective version of winning involves his attacking players displaying defensive responsibility – a lesson Hazard says he is still getting used to.
“I learn with Mourinho every day to improve defensively and I try to give the best for the team. I know my job is to score and to make assists, but if I can help the team, it’s a pleasure,” he says, with that half-smile again suggesting that perhaps the transition has not always been quite as smooth as he makes out.
There is one area of the pitch that Hazard will not be expected to occupy this season. “I am a left or right-winger,” he says. “I think that football now is finished with the No 10.”
Following Juan Mata’s departure to Manchester United last January, Hazard claimed Chelsea’s No 10 shirt for himself – “because my idol Zidane was No 10”. It is an odd paradox made more confusing by Hazard’s assertion that the No 10 shirt is “just one number”.
He is right – shirt numbers have long ceased to define a player’s role on the pitch. Hazard wore 17 in his first season and a half at Chelsea, yet played in the same position on the left as he is likely to today when Chelsea host Leicester City.
The impetuousness that marks Hazard’s speech is also what makes him stand out on the pitch. It was in evidence at Turf Moor on Monday, as Chelsea recovered from a goal deficit to beat Burnley 3-1. The new signing Cesc Fabregas took the limelight – “He did very well,” says Hazard – but the characteristic jinking runs and teasing feet were very much in evidence.
It was not the perfection Hazard is seeking. But, at 23, perhaps footballing nirvana is not so very far away for Chelsea’s boy who would be king.
Eden Hazard was speaking as the Chelsea star was being unveiled as the pack star of EA SPORTS FIFA 15. Available for pre-order now at easports.com/uk/fifa/buy
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