Chelsea struck oil when it signed Eden Hazard. The Belgian playmaker is one world soccer’s best young players, and Blues’ fans are thanking their lucky stars that he decided to move to West London.
Citizens of any oil-rich country know that the slick stuff can be a gift and curse. Sure, it can enrich the population, modernize the place and accelerate development. But it also comes with hazards that can do long-term damage. Countries can become overly dependent on it, often failing to develop other industries. When something goes wrong — be it an oil spill or explosion — it can take generations to undo the damage.
Hazard chose Chelsea as the place in which he will continue down what looks like his inevitable path toward superstardom. And that’s what Hazard is… a superstar. Unlike star players, who have five to seven good (or even great) seasons, the 21-year-old expects to spend well over a decade at the top level.
He already has four of them under his belt. At 17, he won France’s young player of the year award, and he recently picked up a second-straight player of the season award. He knew he would make the jump to a more competitive league in 2012-13, and the Premier League was always going to be his destination. The only question was where he would end up.
Hazard sparked a bidding war between England’s three richest club. Manchester City, Manchester United and Chelsea were each willing to pay the £35.3 million ($54.3 million) OSC Lille wanted for its “diamond nugget.” The Premier League trio even agreed to his enormous salary demands of £170,000 per week ($14 million per year). He chose Chelsea because he was assured of playing significant minutes in his preferred position — as the number 10 — just behind the forward line.
“When they won the Champions League I told myself, ‘Why not Chelsea?’” Sky Sports reports Hazard told RMC. “There was a struggle between Chelsea and United but, for me, Chelsea has the best project.
“The team is young and I have a better chance to play there. At 21, Real [Madrid] or Barca would have been more difficult for me. If I play well enough at Chelsea, I could win my place in the starting team.”
Hazard’s salary demands and open flirtation with every top club led many to accuse him of being an egomaniac. He may be one. In fact, he probably is one. But few people have reached his level — at any age or in any field — without having a massive ego. It comes with the territory.
Hazard’s first challenge will be to prove what all the fuss is about. He will grace stadiums across what is arguably the most soccer-crazed nation on earth, and the eyes of fans and pundits will be glued to him. The level of scrutiny will either compel him to keep improving as a player, or its weight will crush him into bits of coal.
Chelsea is investing its near future in the wizard, as it can reasonably expect him to stay for the next five to seven years. He should provide plenty of goals and assists, which will help keep the club performing at the level to which it has grown accustomed over the last decade — involved in the last eight of the UEFA Champions every year. This is no small order during a time which will see the Blues evolve from the era of the “old guard” to a bright, new one.
Chelsea’s on-field dependence on Hazard pales in comparison to what it needs him to bring off it. Roman Abramovich bought the team with the intention of turning it from a posh London club into a global super-club. Such a transformation takes years (decades even) to achieve. The Russian oligarch needs Hazard to entertain current fans at Stamford Bridge and fuel the dreams of legions of new fans when the club moves into a new stadium in a few years’ time. This is Hazard’s second major task.
Finally, Hazard will have the company of a number of fellow Belgians at Chelsea. Goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, forward Romelu Lukaku and winger Kevin De Bruyne hope to establish themseves in the Blues’ first team next season, and play key roles in future campaigns. Hazard is the crown jewel in what Belgium hopes is a golden generation of players. His international success depends on the performance level his teammates reach. If he can help Chelsea’s Belgian brigade reach the top — playing key roles in trophy-contending teams — that core of players can form the base of all-conquering teams for club and country. Hazard’s third and greatest challenge is to bring this best-case scenario to fruition.
Chelsea has bet its present and future on the Hazard signing. If it goes well, the Blues will be spoken of alongside the super-clubs of the world in ten years’ time. If it turns messy, and there are fall-outs and divisions, Hazard will be fine. He will take his show to Real Madrid, Barcelona, AC Milan or any other club for which great players have played over the last half-century. Chelsea FC will be the ones left with the difficult job of cleaning up the oil slick.
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