Eden Hazard’s refusal to sacrifice his free spirit should be admired, says Matt Barlow

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Eden Hazard always idolised Zinedine Zidane, said he was the reason he fell in love with football in the first place and the reason he wanted to play for Real Madrid.

So it’s a desperate shame Hazard was unable to show the respect his manager deserved. That he let himself go when injuries set in after he left Chelsea for a new life in Spain.

Zidane probably deserved more commitment from this Galactico signing, who admits in an interview with L’Equipe that he dialled it down at Real and might sometimes turn up to train feeling worse for wear after a heavy night, not run about a lot and then swerve the boring tactical training sessions and go for a rub down.

Although let’s not saddle up the moral horses just yet. Not at the behest of Christophe Dugarry, who is getting his knickers in a twist about Hazard on French TV.

Dugarry was part of the France team inspired by the genius of Zidane to World Cup glory in 1998, but never really made an impression at Milan or Barcelona and had a decent six months on loan at Birmingham City.

Eden Hazard admitted he ‘let go of myself’ after joining Real Madrid from Chelsea for £150m

Hazard was a free spirit who did not crave the prizes and personal accolades like Cristiano Ronaldo (pictured)

Hazard was a free spirit who did not crave the prizes and personal accolades like Cristiano Ronaldo (pictured)

Zidane Zidane was Hazard’s idol but probably deserved more commitment from the Belgian

Hazard is one of the finest players of his generation, but Real Madrid never got to witness the same player that lit up the Premier League during his seven-season stint at Stamford Bridge

Hazard is one of the finest players of his generation, but Real Madrid never got to witness the same player that lit up the Premier League during his seven-season stint at Stamford Bridge

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Hazard is one of the finest footballers of his generation. For a time, the best plying his trade on these shores. Not only a delight to watch, with his beautiful balance, explosions of pace and creative imagination, but also hugely influential.

He changed games for his team and he won them trophies. Chelsea won the Premier League twice with him wreaking havoc, usually from the left wing. If he did that while half-cut or hungover then fair play to him, but he probably didn’t.

There was always a feeling Hazard had more to give. Perhaps most evident when Jose Mourinho returned for his second spell at Stamford Bridge after working with Cristiano Ronaldo at Real Madrid.

Mourinho compared them often. Initially, positively in the hope he might be able to convince Hazard to devote himself to a regime akin to Ronaldo, to squeeze the maximum from his natural gifts.

And then, over time, with a hint of an eye roll or a drop of sarcasm when he came to realise he would never be like that.

Hazard was always a free spirit. His motivation was never like Ronaldo’s. He did not crave prizes, personal acclaim or an army of Instagram followers to validate his talent.

He played for fun. When training ended, he went home to see his family and kicked a ball in the garden with his kids. This side of the L’Equipe confessional, we can wonder if cracked open a cold lager, fired up the barbecue and dozed in a hammock.

He might return overweight for preseason or after an injury lay-off but nobody accused him for being disruptive, and he did not fail to deliver on the pitch for Chelsea.

Christophe Dugarry has blasted Hazard for not being honest with his manager and team-mates at the time

Christophe Dugarry has blasted Hazard for not being honest with his manager and team-mates at the time

The Belgian reportedly arrived for pre-season with his new club a stone overweight in 2019

The Belgian reportedly arrived for pre-season with his new club a stone overweight in 2019

Jose Mourinho (right) realised over time at Chelsea that Hazard wouldn't devote himself to a regime like Cristiano Ronaldo to squeeze out the maximum from his natural gifts

Jose Mourinho (right) realised over time at Chelsea that Hazard wouldn’t devote himself to a regime like Cristiano Ronaldo to squeeze out the maximum from his natural gifts

Take the joy from his football and what do you risk losing? Imagination, free expression, creative energies. The very things that made him the player he was and lit up the matches he played in.

Sure, they paid him a lot of money. Whose fault is that? You want the goals, assists and trophies but not the personality? Well, these things are not for prising apart.

That’s where good managers come in. To understand their players and strike a balance within the team environment.

Look at modern Manchester United where Erik ten Hag is railing against the attitudes, lifestyles and work-ethics of some of his most talented players. He might strike a very different balance if they were winning him the league.

Ultimately, that’s what Mourinho did. It was one of his strengths. There were flashpoints but he harnessed Hazard to win the Premier League title in 2015. Antonio Conte did it, two years later.

There was high expectations for Hazard when he joined Madrid but football's evolution perhaps caught up with his talents as the era of the high-intensity press was not for him

There was high expectations for Hazard when he joined Madrid but football’s evolution perhaps caught up with his talents as the era of the high-intensity press was not for him

The Belgian's time at the Bernabeu was plagued by injuries and he retired from football at 32

The Belgian’s time at the Bernabeu was plagued by injuries and he retired from football at 32

Hazard won two LaLiga titles and a Champions League under Zidane but never became a regular starter at the Bernabeu under the Frenchman

Hazard won two LaLiga titles and a Champions League under Zidane but never became a regular starter at the Bernabeu under the Frenchman

Maurizio Sarri was frustrated by attempts to integrate him into his philosophy, because Hazard was reluctant to commit to his demands for work off the ball. Sarri experimented with him as a false nine, instead, especially in the toughest games.

Maybe this should have been a red flag for Real Madrid. Perhaps football’s evolution caught up with Hazard’s talents. The era of the high-intensity press was probably not for him, especially after a culmination of injuries and years of defenders chopping at his ankles.

With the comfort of a big contract and a sunshine life in Spain, it seems like he settled for a life of luxury only to find modern football is no place for a luxury player.

Too bad for Zidane and Real but that does not alter who Hazard is. Nor what he achieved. In fact, we should admire him more for refusing to sacrifice who he was.

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