Eden Hazard knows the significance of endings. He may not be the world’s most driven superstar when it comes to individual statistics or honours, but he likes to be liked, and the overwhelming love he feels from Chelsea supporters is hugely important to him.
“If I ever leave, it’ll be after winning a championship,” Hazard said in an interview with the Guardian in November 2016. “You need to go out on a high so that people remember you for the right reasons.”
Time has run out on Hazard’s fairy-tale farewell: a first Champions League winners’ medal or one last Premier League title. Getting one more victory over Arsenal in the Europa League final would be a decent consolation, even if too few of his adoring fans will be in Baku to see it.
When the time came for Didier Drogba and John Terry to sign off as Chelsea players for good, both departed as Premier League title winners. They also left well into their 30s, their best years unarguably in the rearview. Hazard’s desire to spend the rest of his prime elsewhere is inherently more painful and the Belgian international is aware of this, which is why he’s been so keen to stress the “amazing” things that he and Chelsea have achieved together: He even tweeted that he was signing for “the Champions League winner” back in 2012.
It might explain why triumph in Baku is so important to him and why he’s so adamant that he could never play for another English club. “No chance,” he insisted in an interview this week. “I am a blue! It means a lot to me.”
Yet there is a chance that Hazard’s legacy at Chelsea from here on out could be influenced as much by what he says off the pitch as by what he does on it.
Speaking after Chelsea’s final Premier League game of the season against Leicester City earlier this month, the normally carefree and jovial Hazard gave off the first signs of frustration that Marina Granovskaia and Real Madrid president Florentino Perez had made so little progress on a deal to take him to Spain. Hazard revealed he had informed Chelsea of his wishes two weeks earlier and expected to be in a position to announce his decision after the Europa League final. But as a date with destiny in Baku approaches, there is nothing to suggest he is any closer to the resolution he craves.
Chelsea accepted months ago that they cannot realistically prevent Hazard from joining Madrid this summer; the threat of him walking away for free in 2020 is all the leverage he needs. But that does not mean Granovskaia will be compelled to sell her most prized asset on anything less than her terms.
Chelsea are asking for £130 million, and even if Hazard’s true value entering the final year of his deal is likely to be closer to £100m, Madrid have shown no desire to go that far above their £88m valuation of the Belgian. There are also questions as to whether they even have the money to meet Chelsea’s demand. Eintracht Frankfurt sensation Luka Jovic will take Madrid’s summer spending into nine figures if he joins former Porto defender Eder Militao at the Bernabeu. With a new stadium to finance, how much is left? How much of the Hazard fund is reliant on offloading Gareth Bale, a superstar seemingly without a market?
Even when all parties harbour the best intentions, transfers of this size rarely happen quickly. Add in Perez’s track record of long, attritional public sagas as well as Granovskaia’s trademark determination to “win the deal” and it’s easy to see how Hazard’s exasperation could grow in the coming days and weeks.
The question is how Hazard will handle it. He can’t resist toying with journalists and the public at times, but overall, he takes an uncomplicated approach to his career. There is no super-sized entourage or even a traditional agent in his circle: only family and trusted advisers. He has been extremely low maintenance in his seven years at Chelsea, even accepting without fuss Granovskaia’s decision to rebuff Madrid’s advances last summer after he’d made it clear he wanted to “discover something different” at the end of Belgium’s historic World Cup campaign.
On top of the trophies he has won, the goals he has scored and the spectacular memories he has created, this reasonable attitude is something that Hazard feels has earned him the right to expect an easy exit from Chelsea. He wants things settled by June 4 at the latest, when he joins up with the Belgium squad. All the early signs, however, suggest he will be disappointed.
So what does Hazard do?
Hazard has always been adamant that he will not leave Chelsea amid the kind of acrimony that tarnished Thibaut Courtois forever in the eyes of many fans. He happens to be far more loved at Stamford Bridge than his countryman ever was, but that also means he has far more to lose.
Anything that Hazard says about Madrid in public from this point forward will weaken Chelsea’s negotiating position, making his desired outcome more likely. But lobbying in public on Wednesday or beyond — particularly if Arsenal win and deny him a dream farewell — risks fraying the patience of the fans who largely accept his wish to leave.
It’s hard to imagine Chelsea supporters ever turning against Hazard after everything he has done for their club. But remaining in their unconditional affections while pushing his way out the door is a thin line to walk, and he may yet face an unpleasant choice between his ideal ending to one part of his career and the dream opening to another.