In an interview with Spanish daily MARCA in 2010, Zinedine Zidane spoke exclusively about Lille’s Eden Hazard. The Frenchman was in high praise of the 19-year-old, stressing that he would take the Belgian to Real Madrid with his eyes closed – and indeed asked president Florentino Pérez to consider the idea. Of course, nine years later Hazard did move to the Spanish capital – to play under Zidane – and what happened in the years between was exactly as the Frenchman predicted.
Hazard moved to Chelsea in 2012 and became one of the best players in England over the next seven years, winning two Premier League titles, two Europa League honours and one FA Cup – and there were individual accomplishments aplenty. It was his early years at Lille, however, that caught the eye of many around Europe, Hazard breaking through and helping turn them into one of the best sides in the country.
Coming from a family of footballers, it seemed normal that the sport was the way to go for Hazard. Prior to his days at Lille, the youngster was plying his trade at native sides Royal Stade Brainois and AFC Tubize. It was at the latter that the Belgian impressed scouts from the French giants, who recognised his talent on the ball and immediately placed him in the academy. Towards the end of the 2006/07 season, Hazard signed a professional contract at the club, followed soon after by his debut for the first-team.
In his early days, however, there were complaints about his work ethic. Michel Vandamme, the head of the academy, told a story to Nord Éclair about the time he called over his parents for a chat and a young Hazard admitted to a lack of enthusiasm: “His mother turned to him and said, ‘Eden, is this all true?’ “And he replied, ‘Yes, it’s true.’ He was disarming. He had one enormous quality: his honesty.” Nevertheless, the “unusual sense of play” when Vandamme first saw Hazard at the age of 12 was not to be given up on.
The opportunity in the first team six months later when, in November 2007, Hazard came on as a substitute in a match against Nancy. Still only a teenager, it was natural that opportunities were few and far between, and Hazard just played three more times in the senior squad. At reserve level, though, he was only increasing his stock as impressive displays made him a highly-reputed figure around France. Lille B finished fifth in their division and Hazard got plenty of time on the pitch to make a name for himself.
The following season, under the management of Rudi Garcia, the winger was given more chances in the first-team. He took them well. His maiden goal wasn’t far away either. Playing against Auxerre, Hazard received the ball from the outside of the box following a corner and firmly struck it into the bottom corner. It was a clean strike that only touched the surface of how talented Hazard truly was, but the fans in attendance got an early glimpse of the sort of player they had on their books.
The effort made Hazard the youngest goalscorer in the club’s history and, nearly two months later, he made his first league start for Lille against Saint-Étienne, where he netted once more. It was in the second half of the season that his name became a fixture on the teamsheet – and Lille reaped the rewards from it. He scored and provided winning goals in matches against Sochaux and Monaco, while in the cup he found the net against Lyon to knock the defending champions out.
His run of scoring in important matches continued with a strike against Marseille later in the season, as it became clearer that Lille had a real diamond on their hands. His breakthrough and form was rewarded with the award for Ligue 1’s Young Player of the Year, Hazard becoming the first international player to win the honour. Additionally, he also helped Lille return to the European scene, qualifying for the Europa League.
It represented a positive period for the club. Lille had made steady progress since the turn of the decade, qualifying for the Champions League in 2001 just four years after they had suffered relegation to the second tier. Under Claude Puel, Rudi Garcia predecessor, they beat the likes of Manchester United and AC Milan, while financially, Lille looked secure as they opened their 43-hectare Domaine de Luchin training centre and headquarters in September 2007, one of Europe’s finest.
Alongside Hazard, they had several other up-and-coming talents, including Mathieu Debuchy, Yohan Cabaye, Gervinho and Rio Mavuba. Being the poster-boy of this team didn’t faze Hazard, who was the youngest of the lot. He took the responsibility in his stride and, in the Europa League, he showed his talent once again.
In the qualifying rounds, Hazard struck a goal each against FK Sevojo and Genk to send Lille into the competition proper. His prize form in Europe continued in the group stages, demonstrating the best of his devastating ability against Genoa. Having received the ball, Hazard sliced through the Italian club’s midfield, leaving several players trailing, before finishing from the edge of the box.
A month later he’d put Slavia Prague to the sword in a 5-1 demolition that confirmed to many that mentally he was ready for the very top. It was these performances from a player who was still so young that attracted so much interest, especially from clubs across the Channel. Chatter about his future was rife, but Hazard kept his head down and continued to improve.
Domestically, the 19-year-old built on the previous year. His streak of performances in big games continued. He netted in matches against Lens, Montpellier and Le Mans as Lille put on a muted title-challenge. It was, however, in Europe that Hazard continued to make the most noise. When Lille were drawn against Liverpool in the round of 16 in the Europa League, Hazard had a gala time.
In the first leg, at home, Hazard was at his creative best, causing trouble for an inconsistent Liverpool back-line that included Glen Johnson, Daniel Agger, Jamie Carragher and Emiliano Insúa. He was creating chances at will for his teammates and, after a promising 83 minutes, he would have his final say, scoring from a long-range free-kick. Lille enjoyed another big victory, achieved thanks to their young star.
Unfortunately, it would be his last enjoyable night in Europe that season. Lille were knocked out of the competition after losing the second leg 3-0 at Anfield, but there were plenty of positives to take from that campaign. Les Dogues ended the Ligue 1 campaign in fourth, just a point behind Auxerre in the Champions League spots, but on a personal note there was more success for the emerging attacker. He was nominated for the league’s Player and Young Player of the Award, becoming the first to win the latter two seasons in a row, while missing out on the former to Lyon goal machine Lisandro López.
As Lille continued to grow, a push for a return to the Champions League was widely expected, but the following season didn’t start the way they wanted, especially for Hazard. Rudi Garcia dropped him to the bench early in the season, stating that the player’s inconsistency was affecting the team and that he needed some space away from the pitch. Those thoughts were echoed by his international colleagues, who stated that he needed time to recover his best form.
He eventually got going – overcoming the challenges that all young players face – starting with a starring performance against Caen in the Coupe de France, before putting on vintage displays against Brest, Monaco and Lorient as Lille climbed to the top of the table just before the end of 2010.
His consistency improved further at the turn of the year as he formed a formidable attacking duo alongside Gervinho. The talking down earlier in the season seemed to spark something in Hazard as he responded strongly and never looked back. He was impossible to stop for most Ligue 1 opposition as Lille sailed through the competition, hoping to seal an incredible league and cup double.
In March 2011, Hazard scored arguably the best goal of his career to date – and it couldn’t have come in a more crucial game. Squaring off away against Marseille, their primary title rivals that season, Hazard received the ball from over 35 yards out and, with his apparently weaker left foot, fiercely struck the ball, leaving Steve Mandanda stranded who only watch it fly into the top corner. LOSC ended up winning 2-1, with the winner coming in stoppage time.
The title was sealed by an impressive eight points and Hazard credits the early-season dressing down as a motivating factor, telling FIFA: “I learned a lot during those few weeks, mentally speaking. And since then, things have got better.” Working with seasoned professionals at club and international level helped and Hazard ended that league season with seven goals and 11 assists. But those numbers don’t do justice to his creative efforts – he was the best dribbler in the league and the most exciting.
The season wasn’t finished there, though. Lille marched all the way to the final of the Coupe de France, with Hazard contributing heavily in the semi-final success against Nice, which set up a showpiece event against Paris Saint-Germain. The capital side were dispatched 1-0 as Lille won their first domestic double since 1946.
Hazard’s stock was on the rise once again as he was named Ligue 1 Player of the Year, becoming the youngest-ever to receive the award.
By this point, it was clear that his time at Lille was coming to an end, but he was determined to play in the Champions League with them. Cabaye and Gervinho, two integral parts of the double-winning campaign, left for the Premier League and, while the prospect of playing with some of the best in the world’s most popular competition was appealing, Hazard stayed in France and aimed to build on the success.
Lille brought in Joe Cole and Dimitri Payet in the following season and, together, they were an enticing trio. Although the Englishman didn’t play as much as he liked with the other two, whenever he did get the chance, he formed a fine partnership with Hazard. Cole started off strongly, linking-up well with the Belgian as the two combined for a goal against Bordeaux early in the season. Payet, meanwhile, was struggling to adjust, but his time would come.
In Europe, however, they didn’t fare quite as expected. Placed in a tricky group with Inter, Trabzonspor and CSKA Moscow, Lille were only registered one win – away in Russia – and were knocked out after finishing bottom of their group. With the European distraction out of the way, all focus turned to domestic competition as Lille pushed to retain their crowns.
Following their elimination, Hazard went on an impressive goalscoring streak, netting so often that, by January, he had already bettered his previous season’s tally. But it became clear that these were Hazard’s final few months in France as English giants Manchester United, Manchester City and Chelsea all circled around the attacker. The Belgian’s time at Lille was running down, but he only ramped up the style. In the last few weeks of the campaign, Lille had given up the title to Montpellier and the nouveau-riche Paris Saint-Germain, but Hazard was still firing.
He retained his Player of the Year gong, becoming the first man since Pauleta to win the award in consecutive seasons. After Chelsea’s win over Bayern Munich in the Champions League final, he announced his departure to the Blues. He wasn’t done yet, though. In his final match for LOSC, against Nancy, the club he made his debut against, Hazard scored the first hat-trick of his career in a 4-1 win.
Mavuba later revealed that Hazard wasn’t in the best shape before the game after a party he had organised the previous night, but that didn’t stop him from a glorious farewell: “We decided to have a little drink. A little drink that dragged on somewhat. The following morning, Eden was still drunk. That evening against Nancy, not even with 30 minutes played, Eden had already bagged a hat-trick. The guy had not even slept, he drank for the entire night and he put away a hat-trick in 30 minutes. We all looked at each other, we told ourselves this guy was the real deal.”
Hazard’s final season in France ended with him breaking the league’s assist record with 16, which stood until Payet took the record for himself at Marseille. Over his five-season stint, Hazard also completed an incredible 654 dribbles at an average of 4.4 per game, something only the very best in Europe could better.
The Belgian is now living the dream at Real Madrid under Zidane, but his days at Lille laid the foundations for a brilliant career. He came through as a budding youngster from Belgium, made an early mark, learned from his mistakes, and left as a legend.
By Karan Tejwani @karan_tejwani26