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May 30, 2012

Hazard Blues-bound for right reasons

Eden Hazard has not completed his move from Lille to Chelsea yet but he's already being vilified in parts of the media and on several online forums. Much negativity is being generated about the midfielder, most of all, from fans of the other clubs who were in the running for his signature. He is being called greedy, a mercenary, arrogant and over-rated. For what it's worth, allow me to comment, as a fellow Belgian who has followed Hazard for many years now.

• John Brewin: Hazard warning

Is Hazard greedy? I wouldn't say so. First of all, the wages rumoured in that most reliable of sources, the Daily Telegraph, are probably far removed from the truth, certainly because Manchester United were still said to be interested and they would never give that sort of a contract to a young player who, even if he comes out of France with big credentials, has it all to prove. I, for one, cannot imagine Hazard asking for £200K a week.

If this was about money, he would be off to Russia or even China. This is a player who has planned his career in a gradual and intelligent way. He is not about to jeopardise this by asking for the sort of wages that most people seem to agree might see him end up losing out on his big transfer. Having said that, even if this figure was correct, it is the clubs who are willing to pay these insane and obscene amounts of money to football players.

Is Hazard worth 200K a week? No, of course he isn't. But is Wayne Rooney really worth what he is paid? Lionel Messi? Vincent Kompany? Name all the big players and they all, if we are honest, make ridiculous amounts of money - at clubs who are massively in debt, by the way, but let's not go there...

Second, and this puts the "mercenary" tag to bed as well, if Hazard was a money player, surely he could have gone for one of the many other offers that have been thrown at him over the past couple of years. Zinedine Zidane even recommended him to Juventus last season. Yet he chose to stay at Lille, because in his own words he hadn't yet reached his full potential there. There was also a great sense of loyalty. He has often repeated that he would not be the player he is without his development at Lille OSC. It is exactly this loyalty and modesty that made him so popular there.

Next up: arrogant. Sure, there is a sense of self-confidence about him. But why wouldn't he be self-confident? There is a certain nonchalance about Hazard because of this, and that can easily be mistaken for arrogance. He doesn't like training much and he loathes the pre-match warm-up, when you can see him trudging about, very obviously waiting for showtime.

In Belgium's last friendly, against Montenegro, he showed that nonchalance when he had to re-take a spot kick. He had slotted home perfectly but one of his team-mates had misread a dummy and stormed into the area. Hazard, completely relaxed, placed the ball back on the spot, looked at the referee for his signal, took two steps and put the ball past a motionless Montenegro goal keeper.

The grins on the faces of his team-mates said it all: "Can you believe this guy?" Hazard himself enjoyed the group moment and then went back to playing his socks off, running back to defend when called upon and basically popping up all over the pitch with a flick, a dribble, a pass, a shot. This boy can seriously play. And why on earth would we blame him for knowing he can?

Over-rated, then. Well, if I may be very blunt here, if you call Eden Hazard over-rated, you have obviously never seen him play. But the reasoning behind this nonsense is that he has won his many personal and club honours in what seems to be regarded as "only the French league". (A very arrogant statement if you ask me. Pot, kettle, black. But there you go.)

Well, first of all, this is one of the most competitive league in Europe. Spain, Italy, England, or the so-called big three, generally throw up the same top four every year. In the case of Spain's La Liga, it is at its worst. There we have only two clubs competing for the prizes, with the gap between second and third ever widening. (A staggering 30 points between Barcelona and Valencia this season pretty much sums it up.)

Sure, those leagues have bigger clubs than France, but which other league has seen five different champions in the past five years? Even when Olympique Lyon won seven titles in a row from 2002 to 2008, there were six different runners-up. Things are fiercely competitive in France. So to make the Team of the Year selection three seasons running, and win both the Young Player of the Year award (2009 and 2010) and Player of the Year award (2011 and 2012) twice is no mean feat. Hazard, 21, steered his club to a cup and league double last season and ended this one on 20 goals and 16 assists.

Every major club in Europe has been watching him for years. I'm sure they know who is genuinely talented and who is not. At this point, let me remind you that Zinedine Zidane and Thierry Henry signed for Juventus from Bordeaux and Monaco respectively. Ronaldinho went to Barcelona from Paris Saint-Germain. These are just a couple of examples. My point is that the quality of a football player isn't decided by the league in which he starts his career. To ram the point home: Barcelona got Lionel Messi from Newell's Old Boys in Argentina. Who? Exactly.

Much with the same disdain for any league other than La Liga or the Premier League, it is said that Hazard hasn't won a "major trophy" yet. First of all, as I argued above, being a driving force at your club, winning the French Cup and league at 20 isn't what I would call peanuts. Second, the fact that you haven't won any big trophies doesn't say a thing about you as an individual player, just as winning one doesn't mean you're a great player suddenly. Darren Fletcher, with all due respect, has won the Premier League four times, the League Cup twice, the FA Cup, the Champions League and the FIFA World Cup. Again, no disrespect to Darren, but I think he himself would wholeheartedly agree that Eden Hazard is a better football player than he is.

Right, I have said what I wanted to say. Now sit back and enjoy. If Hazard feels at home at Chelsea, he will be phenomenal. And before you get started, it is important for a player like him to feel at home, to feel loved. He is not alone in that. The fact that Lionel Messi needs the cocoon of Barcelona is demonstrated every time he plays for his country.

Hazard will probably need to adapt to his new surroundings, and certainly he won't be able to rely on just his massive talent anymore, the way he has long been used to. He will not be top dog at Chelsea and in England, as he was in France. There is a much bigger concentration of talent around him from now on. But once he gets his head round that, he will dazzle. Chelsea have made a fantastic signing. And Hazard will soon cause mouths to open for different reasons.

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