FourFourTwo Long Read: Chelsea, Eden Hazard and the unfamiliar pain of letting greatness go
Football is a transitory, market-driven business. We know this – it's a mindset we've been forced to adopt in the post-oil money era. Marquee signing not cutting the mustard? Bin him. Last season's title-winning manager on a four-game losing run? P45 the prick. Beloved 20th-century stadium not fit for a multi-platform global brand? Raze it to the ground.
Any fan of a 'big team' not prepared to think like this is surely in for a rough old time. For the modern football fan, the concept of sentimentality has become highly illogical; sometimes borderline absurd. Yet for some reason, a vast number of us continue to watch the game on outdated emotional hardware – as if we can't quite bring ourselves to treat football like the profit-driven exercise it is.
Where the heart is
Tune into any talkSPORT phone-in, or ghost around any Facebook fan group for a few minutes, and you'll find that there are still huge numbers of people getting far too invested and involved in matters that you just never would with any other kind of corporate entertainment entity.
Many of us persist in willing on our Freds, Keitas and Moratas to come good – even though everything suggests they won't. We cling on to our Roy of the Rovers delusions of local boys scoring cup final-winning goals, despite knowing all the while that local boys play in League One and nobody cares about cup finals anymore. We bemoan the loss of our cherished home stadia; the memories, the rituals, the quaint architectural features (but quickly forget about them when we see the ones the Champions League money can buy us).
Lifelong fans are romantic, foolish, pathetic, but ultimately forgetful beings stuck in a culture of commerce – like the old pissheads still singing Danny Boy in a long-changed gastro-boozer. Despite years of practice in the pain, we're just never quite prepared for the things that the suits and agents are prepared to inflict on us in the name of solvency and domination.
Outside of total, call-the-administrators-and-rename-the-stadium decline, there is no more crushing feeling for the sentimental football fan than watching a hero player at their peak slowly slip through the arms of a club. Those last few games before a transfer window, when the fans become all too aware that they're watching a player outgrow his circumstances; their adopted teenage son growing too big for his childhood bed. The ebb and flow, buy and sell of the modern game kicking you in the throat.
In the age of 24-hour football media, these agonising separations are analysed and speculated to an almost Brexitesque extent; playing out through WhatsApp arguments, cagey post-match interviews, Spanish tabloid headlines, ‘sources close to Sky’, and 25-minute ‘Nev and Carra’ discussions.
None of which quite prepare us for that awful moment when our young apprentices come to our doors, thank us for everything we've done, but let us know it's now time to spread their wings and touch the Iberian sun.
For some clubs, it's a dead certainty. For others, it's still a shock to the system. Southampton and Leicester fans must be used to watching their stars get snatched by bigger clubs now, but for Liverpool and Arsenal supporters – who've had it with Philippe Coutinho, Alexis Sanchez, Luis Suarez and now Aaron Ramsey – it still smarts, and reveals brutal truths about the stature of their clubs in this market.
The Eden project
To be honest, as a Chelsea fan, it's not something I'm hugely used to. The club's cash, locale, relative success and habit of buying players slightly past their peak has meant that most of our star players over the last 15 years have either seen out their best days at the Bridge, or shuffled off unnoticed apart from a 'thank you, and here's your best moments, Jon Obi' tweet.
Yet here I am now, neck deep in the fear and sadness so familiar to fans of well-run mid-table sides. In fact, Chelsea fans are probably deeper into it than any others in the league right now, as the horrible realisation that Eden Hazard is simply too good to be running rings around Olympiakos next season sets in.
In fact, there's a lot of things he's too good for; slogging out a must-win with Burnley, for example, or playing alongside a centre-forward with a Slimming World membership. He’s too good for us right now, and has been for quite some time.
It's a deeply dispiriting feeling. Over the seven years he has been at the club, Hazard has been a consistent totem of superiority. N'Golo Kante might be another world XI'er, but Hazard is the one who our opponents fear, respect, dread and covet. He charms, embarrasses and devastates his opponents in equal measure, like a gentleman thief. Those idiosyncratic start-stop runs, YouTube-friendly backheels, endearingly average corners, incredible stats… even an incredible arse.
It will really sting when they're gone – not least as a transfer ban and losing the Europa League final to Arsenal are both distinct possibilities.
Not from the mould
But it won't just be the goals, tricks and assists that we'll miss. Many of Hazards greatest strengths are, in a way, post-football. For an elite-level player, he is incredibly likeable. He's always been one of the cooler footballers in the league – in a natural, unpretentious way, rather than an 'asking Drake for a photograph' one.
He's not a footballer who slams the ground when he can’t reach a cross, takes free-kicks he shouldn't, or treat a match like an episode of The Apprentice. Sometimes you'll even notice him trying to help his various misfiring colleagues in games, setting them up nicely for another Row-Z-Upper-Left finish.
He doesn't exactly play with a smile on his face, rather the guilty grin of a player who knows he’s fighting below his level – joking with lunky full-backs who spend all game barging him into the ball boys before asking to swap shirts. He seems to enjoy his tedious media obligations; the crossbar challenges and 'who controls the stereo' questionnaires. He makes Dad jokes with journos, and winks a lot. He is one of the very few great players who lacks that monomaniacal, inhumanly competitive streak that marks them as unknowable to the rest of us. He might just be the last world-beater pisstaker, and god I’ll miss him for that.
For a few seasons now, there’s been a sense that Hazard has almost been playing too well; that his near-total dominance of the Chelsea side, and most of the teams he plays against, has put him in the crosshairs of the ‘European giants’. And as perverse as it sounds, I find myself almost wanting him to reveal some fatal flaw that'll put them off: a weak left foot, a time-bomb knee, a combustible personality.
But there isn't really one – the man is a genius athlete. So instead I'm forced to watch Real Madrid court my boy from a distance, getting Marca (their very own Pravda) to grind the rumour mill before coming up with an offer that's part Indecent Proposal, part Gomorra. It's the same stunt they pulled with Beckham, Figo and Ronaldo, and the same they’re currently doing with Pogba, Mbappe and Neymar. The same shit they always do. Their darkest of arts.
Teams try to fight it; they offer divorcing-parent sugar presents, improved contracts, iconic shirt numbers (I'm pretty sure that Chelsea even signed a few of Hazard's brothers to keep him sweet). But Real Madrid and Barcelona (and to a lesser extent, Juventus, Bayern Munich and PSG) are just too rich, too famous, and too likely to actually win something to turn down. Not only that, they just loom too large in the childhood dreams of international players to keep their heads straight and start homework on Sheffield United for next season.
The simple, horrible truth for fans of British clubs and smaller, hip European sides, is that boys in Antwerp and Accra don't grow up dreaming of playing for Atletico Madrid, or Chelsea, or Tottenham.
They grow up watching the Champions League – and not the group stages. While a teenage Eden Hazard was staying up to watch Zinedine Zidane and Raul at Madrid, Chelsea were still fielding Mario Stanic and Jesper Gronkjaer. Granted, we had John Terry, Frank Lampard and Gianfranco Zola not long after – but they just don't offer those same near-godly associations. British football, like British cinema and British politics, will always have that inescapable air of pedestrianism about it. Spanish football is Hollywood, Coachella, Valhalla.
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In many ways, that fearsome lack of respect and constant fixture violence is what makes Premier League so great, but it doesn't keep our superstars here. To appear on Pepsi cans and wear the shirts you'll find in pretty much every conurbation on earth is still the pinnacle for young footballers (not to mention that by FIFA law you have to play in Spain to win a Ballon d'Or). Alas, it'll take a lot more Champions League upsets and gulf-state scandals to change this state of affairs. The Premier League might be the best league in the world, but it isn't the promised land yet.
Kick in the nuts
To find some kind of coping mechanisms for my imminent tragedy, I reached out to some people who are learned in misery: Arsenal fans. The Gooners have had it pretty rough over the last decade or so – and this season is no different, with the confirmed departure of Ramsey and his bizarre, sporadic exile from the first team, they're once again wandering down Heartbreak Avenue.
“I've kind of just got used to it now,” says one (who wishes to remain anonymous). “It's horrible when it first starts happening because it sort of insults your sense of vicarious self-esteem… it bursts the balloon of you believing that you're one of the elite sides, and that you're on an upward trajectory.
“It's a kick in the bollocks, basically. Not so much the fact that they're leaving, just the confirmation that there are greener pastures. To paraphrase Arsene Wenger: ‘Everyone thinks they have the greenest pasture at home.’
“I didn’t feel so bad about Ramsey leaving at the start of this season, but now I feel awful.” says Shola, another Arsenal mate. “But it doesn’t feel like Nasri, Sanchez or even Ashley Cole, because he’s off abroad.”
At last I find some small comfort, for at least Hazard won't be corner flag skanking with Jesse Lingard next season.
So how do you cope with such a loss? How do you accept, absorb and move on? As with any form of loss, it seems that one popular method is 'sheer forward momentum'; the break-up piss-up, the rebound relationship, the don’t-invite-the-parents wedding. Luckily, the cut-and-thrust nature of football usually provides this, otherwise Borussia Dortmund fans would all be in counselling for life – and they seem happy enough, don't they?
For Chelsea, Callum Hudson-Odoi represents a new future, an unexpected romance in the dust of a terrible divorce. But even he seems to have his eyes elsewhere (although a seven-month lay-off will keep him close, for now). For Arsenal fans… who knows? Perhaps the chaos of the club is what keeps them hungry, like recently single men who get into shooting ranges and speed dating.
Over the rainbow
But still, the possibilities percolate through my head in the dead of night. Maybe there will be a new Hazard, maybe there won't. Maybe the new Hazard won't look or play anything like Hazard – maybe he'll be a lanky centre-forward or a goalscoring midfielder. Maybe it'll be Christian Pulisic, though it probably won't. Maybe that smile on Match of the Day means he's staying, maybe it doesn't. Maybe Willian and Pedro will live forever. Despite what Barry Glendenning says, the future is still unwritten.
But misery usually births perspective, and through this experience I find myself going to places I never would have imagined that pricey young Lille winger we signed back in 2012 could take me to. Just as even the most fleeting of relationships can force you to look at the world in a different way.
As the post-match interviews become more and more coded and oblique, as the rumours swirl and I become deeper embroiled in this departure, I start to think about the things we lose in this life. Our times on this planet are punctuated by loss; pets, footballers, grandparents, friends, edging ever closer until it eventually becomes us. As a Chelsea fan with thankfully few losses in my life so far, maybe I've been lucky. Too lucky. Maybe it's my time to taste an ending. Bolton fans might be about to lose their entire club – so what absolves me from such pain?
Football reflects life in a lot of ways, but maybe none more so in that really it’s just a series of managed losses and gains, like we’re all just gambling badly with our emotions – investing, winning occasionally, getting over-excited, and inevitably having it all taken away again.
It's certainly not the most sensible way of approaching things – especially when the croupier is Gianni Infantino. But as the cliche goes, maybe it's better to have loved and lost than to be a PSG fan.
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