Given the way his career ended, it could be easy to forget that Belgian maestro, Eden Hazard, was among the best attacking midfielders in the world during the peak of his powers. Full of incredible dribbling skills, deceptive strength and explosive speed, he often would single-handedly change the course of a game. These exceptional talents of his are what enabled him to make 126 appearances for his country, making him the fourth most-capped Belgian player at the time of his retirement. He also had a very significant impact at Chelsea.
For all the accolades and awards the Belgian scooped during his largely excellent career though, things did not always go according to plan. His dream move from Chelsea to Real Madrid, secured in the summer of 2019, proved to be a complete disaster and is regularly seen as the worst transfer the club has ever made. As well as looking at what went wrong for Hazard in the Spanish capital, we will also look at why he was so sought-after in the first place.
Lille – The Belgian Prodigy Emerges
A young Eden Hazard first joined Lille in 2005 and got his first taste of senior action in a friendly against Club Brugge on 16th November 2007. Having impressed off the bench that day, boss Claude Puel included him in the squad to face Nancy in a league encounter the following week. The 16-year-old was handed his professional debut that day too, coming on as a 78th-minute substitute during a 2-0 defeat.
Hazard would not be a player to storm onto the scene though, but rather he had to be patient for his chance. Even after his full debut, the Belgian spent much of the season playing for the reserve side. In the French top flight, he only racked up a further three appearances, all of which were small cameos.
Across the 2008/09 season though Hazard did get more of a taste of senior action, starting 13 games and coming on as a substitute during another 17. As well as becoming the youngest-ever goalscorer in Lille’s history, he also penned a contract extension, keeping him at the club until 2012. This was an important deal for Lille as interest in their youngster from other clubs was growing.
For the next couple of seasons, Hazard, who had now become a regular starter, looked like a proper talent and was twice nominated for the Ligue 1 Player of the Year Award (winning it on the second occasion). In the 2011/12 season though, he reached an even higher level, netting 20 Ligue 1 goals plus an extra two in other competitions. An obvious Player of the Year pick, he became just the second player to collect the award in two consecutive seasons.
Chelsea – The Blue Brilliance
Although still under contract until 2015, having signed an extension in 2011, Lille were aware they would struggle to retain the services of their 21-year-old starlet given the intense interest from across Europe. Hazard had plenty of possible suitors including Premier League runners-up Manchester United (who’d just lost out to Manchester City in the title race). But Hazard ended up settling on Chelsea in 2012, in what would prove to be £32m incredibly well spent by the London outfit. Pivotal in the move was the Blues securing Champions League football, something they had managed by winning the competition just two weeks prior (after they’d only finished sixth in the Premier League table).
Despite the sizeable price tag, Chelsea’s second most expensive signing at the time, and a £150,000 salary, the Belgian showed little sign of feeling the pressure during his debut season. He did suffer an embarrassing moment during a League Cup semi-final with Swansea City though when he was sent off for kicking the ball from underneath a ball-boy who was attempting to shield it.
Largely though, Hazard’s Chelsea career was marked by numerous highs, most notably during the 2014/15 and 2016/17 seasons. In the 2014/15 campaign, Chelsea – under the guidance of José Mourinho in his second stint at the club – captured the Premier League title, with Hazard named PFA Player’s Player of the Year. Although Hazards’ brilliance cannot just be measured by statistics, his 14 goals and 9 assists in the league did help showcase his prowess.
For the seven seasons Hazard spent at Chelsea, you could only say that he failed to perform during one of them, this being the 2015/16 campaign. It was a challenging season for the club as a whole though rather than Hazard being far below the levels of his teammates. Registering a mere four league goals that season, any negative press he attracted was quickly forgotten about as the next year his 16 goals helped the Blues secure a fifth Premier League title.
By the time of his final season at Stamford Bridge (2018/19) Hazard had scooped four Chelsea Player of the Year awards and had been named in the PFA Premier League Team of the Year as many times. He also collected Chelsea’s Players’ Player of the Year award twice and was named the league’s Playmaker of the Season in 2018/19. Still very much at the peak of his powers, Chelsea would have happily kept him longer but Hazard had indicated he wanted a new challenge. With only one year left on his contract, it was a case of selling at that point or likely losing him for free in 12 months.
Real Madrid – Dream Turned Nightmare
Despite having just a year left on his contract, Chelsea somehow agreed a minimum €100m fee for the 28-year-old, potentially rising to €146m if all add-ons were met. It is safe to say though that few of these add-ons will have been met given how Hazard’s stint in the Spanish capital turned out. Although it had long been reported that playing for the Galacticos was a dream of Hazard’s, he arrived at his first training session completely out of shape. Some reports claimed he was 7kg overweight following rather unhealthy summer break.
This perhaps contributed to the slow start of Hazard and he struggled to gain any real momentum at any point following a series of injuries. By the end of his career, the former Lille man was infamous for being injury prone but he was not always like that. Injuries back in France were a complete rarity and in fact, he even set a Ligue 1 record when making 100 consecutive appearances. There were some problems at Chelsea but not to the extent witnessed at Real Marid, nor close to it. During his final three seasons of professional football, Hazard collected 18 different injuries.
These injury problems also caused issues for Hazard on the international stage. The national team captain missed the quarter-final defeat to Italy in Euro 2020 due to muscular fatigue. His lack of playing time also meant he was a shadow of his former self in the 2022 World Cup. So much so in fact that boss Roberto Martinez dropped him for the must-win clash with Croatia. Belgium could only manage a 0-0 draw and were eliminated from the World Cup. Days after, Hazard announced his international retirement as their second-highest-scoring player of all time.
Back at club level, when departing the Bernabeu, Hazard had racked up just 76 appearances, scoring a mere seven goals in the process. Given the astronomical fee paid and his eye-watering salary of £400k per week, it is easy to see why many Real Madrid supporters view Hazard to be the worst signing in their history. While he’ll not get a particularly warm reception in Spain though, Hazard will long be revered in both Belgium and West London.