Eden Hazard’s first start for Real Madrid on Wednesday night was always likely to be a fascinating subplot for anyone who followed his progress in England.
Predictably Hazard was miles off the pace in Paris. This was his first start in a proper football match since June, and his first outing in the full white-noise glare of Champions League-issue Real Madrid.
On the UK TV coverage Glenn Hoddle winced and grimaced and wagged his head, looking as ever like the sad, kindly community support officer in a rain-soaked oilskin who knocks at your door in the middle of the night to tell you your dog has been run over.
Hoddle thinks Hazard went to Madrid “at the wrong time”. Perhaps he’s right. But then, there is no right time to go Real Madrid, except for that time you look down and discover you’re Cristiano Ronaldo. Otherwise, well, prepare to kneel, prepare to suffer.
And so Hazard struggled, stuck out on the right in a team overrun in central midfield. He played like Eden Hazard, just a bit less so. The next day L’Équipe gave him two out of 10. Mundo Deportivo used the word “innocuous”.
Watching Hazard in the stadium felt a bit different. He wasn’t terrible. He was the same, upright, scuttling, soft-shoed figure. But for me there was something else, a pall of sadness in seeing him out in all that space, exposed to that unblinking glare. Not to mention a sense of shared nostalgia, a lost intimacy that is no less poignant or tender for the fact it only ever existed inside my head and isn’t real.
These are small details. For seven years Hazard was a genuine treat to watch in England. The press box at Stamford Bridge is low down and close to the pitch. You didn’t need to look up to know Hazard had just taken the ball, the only player on the pitch whose touch was completely silent but for a slight shift of air, a whisper around the stands.
He was unusual in other ways. His brilliance came reluctantly. If this sounds like Hazard is soft, then the opposite is true. He was a driving force at the sharp end of two title-winning seasons. At times he played at a pitch beyond any other footballer in England, even the ones who won more and scored more. At others he meandered, a footballer whose own father had wondered if he might just be too nice and too normal to make it as a relentlessly high functioning machine-athlete.
There was something else too, a quality of pathos. He is an oddly affecting figure. Watch him long enough and you could see – or imagine you could see, which is almost the same thing – the things this process took out of him, the way he was feeling. It became natural to think of Hazard as some vision of sporting perfection menaced by pitfalls and dangers. Although this might be because his name is literally the word for a vision of perfection, followed by a word that means pitfall or danger.
And yes, reporting on sport can do strange things to you. I’m not proud.
You stare at these people so intently, trying not just to understand what they’re doing, but to second guess it, to drape it in meaning. It becomes all too easy to invest theory and spiralling trains of thought in people who are often quite simple, and who would look at you strangely if you tried to explain your – wait, no – quite complex ideas about exactly why this thing is happening and not that thing; that you’re not just investing this with an assumed and, arguably, quite creepy sense of intimacy.
And yet on balance it does still seem likely – don’t you think? – that I do actually understand Hazard really well. That I could, for example, have had a really good talk with him on Wednesday night during that break in play where he walked across to the touchline at 1-0 down and stood slightly away from his teammates looking lost. I could have said, look, it’s a bit like that time where you were playing out of, and when José said, and the injury meant, and the other team did.
He’d laugh and roll his eyes and we’d stand in companionable silence. Then he’d go back out and start playing a bit better. At the final whistle he’d wave up as he walked off and something would pass between us, information, understanding.
Look, I’m OK if it doesn’t happen like that. Either way is good. It’s fine.
But there are some things I’d tell him. First, I’d point out that the model he’s entered is in the process of failing. This version of elite football has prostrated itself before an unsustainable notion of individualism and star power. The dynamic has been distorted, made to look idiotic and confused by the presence of a pair of outsize, freakish talents, one of whom used to wear that same No 7 shirt. It is a hunger that has yet to run its course, at a club that will continue to eat its stars.
Then I would tell him that although he’s a wonderful player this doesn’t mean he has to be that kind of wonderful player, whiting out the screen with his relentless, repeatable brilliance. You don’t have to be an obsessive, robot-level goal-lunatic to work here – but it helps!
Hazard is a more elusive talent, a less linear definition of value. It might well work out for him. The parts might still fit. But this is the real power of elite sport, the reason it still creates that strange, irresistible fascination. Failure, discomfort, struggle: these are often the most involving parts of the process. Fly, Eden. Get fit. Play inside a bit more. Most of all remain, whatever the pressure, your intermittently luminous self.