France vs Belgium: Eden Hazard primed to take down team he grew up cheering on with World Cup final on the line

As a child, Hazard cheered on Les Bleus in his Zinedine Zidane shirt, but the French will be wary of the devastation he can cause when they meet in St Petersburg on Tuesday

Jack Pitt-Brooke
Repino
Monday 09 July 2018 20:49
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France Belgium World Cup preview

Eden Hazard was seven and a half during France ‘98, the most impressionable age possible, and there was little question of who he would support.

Growing up in the French-speaking town of Braine-le-Comte, less than one hour’s drive from Lille or Valenciennes, only France shirts were on sale. Hazard was mad about football, and so was his five year old brother Thorgan. Their father Thierry played for local second division side La Louvière. But their hero was Zinedine Zidane.

So the little Hazard brothers wore their France shirts, with ‘ZIDANE 10’ on the back, and cheered their neighbours all the way on to glory in Paris.

Belgium, meanwhile, with Marc Wilmots, Luc Nilis and Emile Mpenza, drew all three group games and did not get out of their group. It was not much of a decision to make.

“In the past we always supported France rather than Belgium,” Hazard told BeIN Sport this week. “We grew up with that 1998 World Cup and at that time the players in France were simply better than in Belgium. I say that with all due respect. We always felt like Belgians, but we supported the French national team.”

Hazard was just 14 when Lille scouts saw him playing for Tubize, the local club where coaches talked about the boy who had been blessed by the holy spirit. They wanted to sign him and for the Hazard family, again, it was a no-brainer. Far better facilities at one of France’s biggest clubs, and very little uprooting.

Even at Euro 2012, just after Hazard left Lille for Chelsea, he was happy to cheer on France. His own Belgian side, in which he was now a regular, had failed to qualify. “I am 99 per cent Belgian,” he said back then, “but 1 per cent French.”

Eden Hazard grew up supporting France but will have no hesitation in knocking them out of the World Cup

Six years on, Hazard is going into the biggest match of his life, ready to knock the team he used to support out of the World Cup. It would be the most fitting next step – but not the conclusion – to a tournament in which he has reasserted his claim to be one of the best players in the world.

Because while France will arrive at St Petersburg as the favourites, Belgium have been the best and most exciting team of the World Cup so far. They have scored the most goals (14), and the most in open play. Only Brazil have had more shots or more shots on target.

Belgium have got this far by completing the greatest comeback of the World Cup, three goals in 25 minutes to knock out Japan. And in the quarter-finals they won the greatest game, a 2-1 win over Brazil that was of far higher standard than France’s 4-3 defeat of Argentina. Because it involved two serious, functioning teams playing close to their best, not just one.

That night in Kazan, Roberto Martinez stepped back from his 3-4-3 system to go to a more solid 3-4-1-2, trying to stem the Brazilian attacks through the middle and hit them on the break. It gave Hazard more work to do, by dropping Dries Mertens, but he responded with a performance that was both thrillingly dangerous but also admirably selfless. Switching from his favoured inside-left channel to the right, happy to make decoy runs as required, he was impossible to pick up, scrambling the Brazilian defence and making the space for Kevin de Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku.

Hazard has taken on a new responsibility as Belgium captain (AFP/Getty)

It was a display that should terrify any of the sides left that Belgium might face. Because the evidence of Hazard’s career so far is that when he is in the mood, in a happy, functioning, focused team, with a coach who knows what he is doing, there is nothing that can get in his way.

Hazard has been the best player by a distance in two Premier League-winning Chelsea teams, under two different managers. No, this season just gone was not his best, as Chelsea found themselves in another characteristic crisis. But he still found a way to win the FA Cup single-handedly at the end.

Beyond Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, there is no-one else quite like him at seizing a game for his team with a few seconds of individual brilliance, bursting in from the left, through space no-one knew was there, shooting before anyone else is set.

Olivier Giroud has been watching Hazard up close for the last six months and now his own World Cup campaign with France is at the mercy of his elusive team-mate, who Giroud hailed as a “genius” this week. “To stand alongside Eden every day at Chelsea, he is impressive when he is driving with the ball, in his capacity to cut through with the ball,” Giroud said. “For me, he is one of the three best players I have ever played with in my whole career.” High praise, but two more games like Friday night and the praise will get even higher, as Hazard steps closer to his childhood hero.

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