x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 20 September 2017

Hazard lights the way for Belgium

Marcotti's man At just 19, Eden Hazard, a creative Belgian midfielder, is already an established international.

Lille's Eden Hazard, right, made his debut for the Ligue 1 side aged just 16. He has since gone on to establish himself as a first-team regular at both club and international level with Belgium.
Lille's Eden Hazard, right, made his debut for the Ligue 1 side aged just 16. He has since gone on to establish himself as a first-team regular at both club and international level with Belgium.

The door is open, all you have to do is walk through it. Eden Hazard was raised with football. His father, Thierry, played it, as did his mother, Carine. So too do all three of his younger brothers. And for as long as he can remember, everything came simple to him. Not by accident, but by design: his parents ensured he had whatever he needed to excel, whether it be lifts to training, kickabouts with mum and dad at the local park or, at age 14, moving to France to join the youth set up at Lille, simply because the facilities were better.

And at every turn, Hazard walked through the doors they opened. In fact, he burst through them, shattering records. He made his professional debut at Lille at the age of 16 and his full debut for Belgium at 17. Each time, he was told the same thing: "You're ready. No reason to hold you back. Now seize the opportunity." His first full season for Lille saw him make 30 appearances, many of them as a game-changing substitute. Which, given his skills, made sense. Lille held down opponents with a somewhat plodding, one-paced physical style and then, all of a sudden tossed in this youngster who seemed perpetually in fast-forward mode.

His is the kind of pace which terrifies: quick changes of direction, instant acceleration, continuous movement. Coupled with the athletic gifts is a sublime technique. Hazard has the kind of ball control which cannot be taught, the type you see in video games, ball stuck to his foot. His passing is accurate, his vision is improving. What's more, he is unselfish. So sound are his fundamentals that he will often pass up a shot to find a better placed teammate, a legacy of what he was taught as a child. And, if anything, that's become a problem, because, even if a teammate is better placed, it won't do you much good if he is a far worse player than you are.

Last season saw Hazard establish himself as a legitimate Ligue 1 player, becoming the first foreigner to win France's Young Player of the Year Award. This year, he has consolidated that role, both for Lille and with the national team. Once again, the door was not just held open for him to walk through, it was made as large and inviting as possible. Crazy as it sounds today, Belgium reached a World Cup semi-final less than 25 years ago, undone only by the genius of Diego Maradona. Since then, they have regressed badly, but the seemingly terminal decline appeared to have been stemmed by a "golden generation" of young footballers.

Except that generation needed, if not a leader, a creative force, a wildcard, a genius capable of capturing the imagination. And so, the likes of Jan Vertonghen (22), Marouane Fellaini (22), Steven Defour (21), Axel Witsel (21), Sebastien Pocognoli (22) and Kevin Mirallas (21) find themselves looking to Hazard, who only turned 19 last January. "I'm not Enzo Scifo," he says, referring to the legendary Belgian wonderkid of the 1980s.

But, to them, he is. Or he will be. In their eyes he has to cross that threshold into greatness. The package of pace and creativity comes at a price. Hazard is small and, while he is compact and can take care of himself on the pitch, sometimes he looks out of place surrounded by giants. And, other times, he simply looks like a teenager. Which, after all, is what he is. "I know that I need to improve," he says. "I rely on pace too much, sometimes I needlessly speed up the game, sometimes I try to do too much."

He has come so far, so quickly, he's probably entitled to a breather. But no. No time to rest. Lille needs him. Belgium needs him. And his family, having worked so hard to help him, are urging him on. Walk through that door, Eden. Walk through that door into stardom sports@thenational.ae