The history books of football are cruel. The pursuit of silverware that dominates the careers of many of the best footballers ends up being a side note when history is finally written. It is the intangibles, the secondary details of a playing career, that shape memory.
In one post-match press conference in 2013, José Mourinho, then the boss of Chelsea, singled out Belgian midfielder Eden Hazard. “The amazing Hazard” would become a common refrain in Mourinho’s assessments of his Chelsea team. For context, he once summed up his team’s performance against Spurs thus: “It was very difficult for Tottenham to cope with an amazing Hazard and a good [Diego] Costa.”
Chelsea had lost that game, but Hazard was already a firm favourite of Mourinho’s. A lot has happened since then, and the Belgian must now decide how he wants to be remembered.
A move for Hazard to Real Madrid — purportedly the dream team of every superstar to ever walk the planet — is being talked about during this transfer window. He must not only decide which league he chooses to ply his trade in, but also what his footballing legacy will be. Hazard’s career guarantees him a chapter in the collective memory of the sport, but how it is written and what intonation those records take are still to be determined.
With his contract ending, it’s likely that January will bring an extension of his Chelsea career, or confirmation that he is destined for Spain.
If he stays in West London he’ll become a club legend. Stamford Bridge treats this man like a deity. To many he is the reincarnation of heroes of recent and distant pasts. He has the swagger that his assistant manager Gianfranco Zola exhibited, the big-game temperament of Didier Drogba and the influence of Frank Lampard. Hazard recently joined those names in getting his own (almost obscenely large) banner at the stadium. Theirs are permanent; his is not.
But what does it mean to be a champion in the age of the mercenary? Is limiting the instincts of self-enrichment still a noble pursuit?
Meet Robin van Persie. He made 194 appearances for Arsenal over about eight years, scoring nearly a century of goals. Yet ask any Gooner and they’ll sooner lament his wasted potential than celebrate those achievements. They’ll tell you he could have had a statue outside the Emirates had he stayed, just like the one of Thierry Henry.
The day he decided to listen to “the little boy inside me” and join rivals Manchester United changed not only his future, but also the way his past would be remembered. His heroics of old became moot points.
Of course, his old side would hate to admit it, but the move worked out rather well for the Dutchman. He won the league in his first season after spearheading a dangerous and fluid attack with Wayne Rooney. It’s more than fair to argue that’s an honour he never would have achieved had he stayed put.
Now he’s finishing his career in Turkey, remembered by both teams he played for in England as more of a footnote than a long-term factor. We can only wonder whether he has any regrets now that fate has crystallised. We don’t have his phone number to ask him.
Then again the same question would be asked of him had he chosen to give his playing days to a cause that failed to yield that significant piece of silverware.
It’s the kind of what-if that surrounds another Premier League pillar: Steven Gerrard. It’s almost taboo to say it out loud, but Liverpool’s favourite son could have achieved so much more. Yes, he won a Champions League after forcefully dragging the Reds like a sled across the Arctic, but, without that coveted league trophy, it still feels like a life incomplete.
For an English boy whose first exposure to football would have been Kenny Dalglish’s all-dominating team of the 1980s, there’s no chance that he didn’t grow up craving it.
He could have taken the easy route, too. Mourinho would later admit — what we already knew anyway — that he tried to sign Gerrard to his imperious inaugural Chelsea side on multiple occasions.
Had he swapped his shirt for a blue one there’s little doubt that one of the greatest midfielders of his generation would have finished with a trophy haul more befitting of his stature.
But then he would have been forgotten more quickly than a mediocre lunch of fish and chips on Merseyside. It’s his loyalty that has endeared him to the Scousers, his years of service that have bought their eternal worship.
When the ashes of form blow away only the individual in question can put into words their anguish or elation over what may be called missed opportunities.
And one could argue that the romanticisation of what’s called a “legend” is merely a utopian idea in today’s ruthless football world — a fugazi we desperately want to believe in. Whether legitimate ambition or fairytale, Hazard is at that particular crossroads. European glory could await in Madrid. (Yes, they’re down, but the Galácticos could never remain there for long.) Does that prospect have a stronger allure than that of a statue? We’ll soon find out.