1. On his knees in Kazan
“L’Adrénaline. La fatigue. The adrenaline. The fatigue. (laughs) Aaaaaaah. (sighs) Finally that game is over. Look at Axel, look at me. Pure joy, pure relief. I just slipped through my knees. If that game against Brazil had lasted fifteen minutes longer, we would have lost. For sure. Even with that ultimate save from Thibaut (Courtois). We just felt it. It was so hard. Tellement dûr. Pffff. I had cramps. Mentally I was knackered. I had given everything.”
(rubs the finger across his throat) “And then the referee blew his whistle. An unbelievable moment. You qualify yourself for the semi-finals after a win against Brazil. Brazil, hey, the big Brazil. A country that could have been world champions. It was the performance of Belgium that everyone had been waiting for for a while. The Golden Generation had shown how well they can play football. That is where the image of our national team has changed, I think.”
“That photo perfectly captures my year. The best match that I have played in my life. In my career I have often performed at a high level. Even in top games. But quarter finals at a World Cup, Brazil, Hazard against Neymar, the whole world watching. I don’t think that I’ve ever played better. Do you know what pleases me the most: that I didn’t score in that match or that I didn’t provide an assist. That is what people nowadays solely expect from players: goals and decisive passes. I have proven, in Kazan, that you can play a great match without those stats.”
“Sometimes I watch the footage of that game again. With the children. Then the memories comes back. Like now. We may not have become world champions, but we have had great moments. Great fun. For me it feels like we have won that tournament. “
2. A wink to the G.O.A.T.
(laughs) C’est qui? Who’s that? Two G.O.A.T.s you say? No way. There is only one G.O.A.T (The Greatest Of All Times): Him, Lionel Messi! (sighs) Those two games against Barcelona were not my best memories of 2018. I was happy to play against Barcelona and Messi, but I didn’t deliver what I expected. I was disillusioned. My three sons were there for the home at Stamford Bridge. The eldest is a big Messi fan - all of us are Messi fans, actually. He wanted to see Messi that day, because Messi is a special player.
“We regularly watch football together. Like I used to do as a child. To Messi, to Ronaldo, to Neymar. (laughs) In that game against Barcelona I got a ball at one point. And I didn’t know what to do with it. I played it right in the opponent’s feet and my son, Leo, suddenly shouted in the stands: ‘Haha, my dad thinks he plays for Barça’. The humor of the father, hey. Kids can be hard sometimes. They tell you the truth. But when I’ve played well they will also praise daddy.“
“My kids are fantastic. You know, I’m already looking forward to seeing better weather, so we can we play football together in the garden again. Whether my kids are good? Oui, pas mal. Yes, not bad. Yannis plays with the local team, here. Leo is starting now too with his friends. If we are training on Saturday afternoon I can go and watch them in the morning. I love it. Everybody has already asked me for a photo, a selfie or a signature - (laughs) there’s no one left to ask anymore. Everybody knows me now, so it’s fine. If I stay in football after my career I want to do something with the youth. I love seeing children develop and grow up. Also my own children.“
3. The FA Cup final
“Everything has actually started there: at Wembley. Maybe some weeks earlier. Because I had missed the first months of the season because of that ankle injury, I only started growing towards my best form at the end of April, the beginning of May. Maybe that rest during pre-season was welcome after years of playing game in, game out. I scored the decisive goal in the FA Cup final. The game where I pumped up my confidence. It’s there that a feeling arrived: the World Cup is going to be my moment. If you even heard that I was excellent in training, then I must have been very good. (laughs) Normalement, ce n’est pas comme ça. Usually I’m not that good during training sessions.”
(enthusiastic) “I started the World Cup without any pressure. After a underwhelming season at Chelsea, nobody expected much from me. That wasn’t a bad thing, but I felt great. Also in the friendly games before the start of the tournament: I was 200 percent fit. (pauses) And that’s something we have seen in Russia.”
“Before the World Cup I’d said to myself for the first time in my career: ‘you are the captain, this is Belgium, we have enough of these remarks that the Belgians have a good team, but are not winning anything’. (grins) That’s finally over now. The ‘but’ has been erased. Ce ‘mais’, c’est fini. (smiles) Well, we still haven’t won anything, but everybody knows now how good we are at playing football. Belgium have charmed the world.”
4. Comforting Neymar
“That was something that came naturally. I didn’t think about it when we crossed each other. I just put myself in his place. Everyone expected him to become the best player of the World Cup. It had to be Neymar. Lionel Messi was out of the tournament. Cristiano Ronaldo idem. The pressure on his shoulders must have been immense. I know the feeling. But tens of thousands of times bigger than in Belgium, when they expected a lot from me in 2014. The nation, the fans, the journalists. C’etait que Neymar, Neymar, Neymar. It was all about Neymar, Neymar, Neymar. It was exaggerated hysteria. Have we won? Then it’s thanks to Neymar. Have we lost? Then it’s Neymar’s fault. As if those 22 others in the Brazil squad didn’t even participate. We did not speak - his English isn’t that good. It was all about the gesture, not about the words. In a difficult moment I wanted to make him feel respected. To comfort him. He is a top player. His moment will come. Maybe at the next World Cup.“
5. The Best: in the best team of the Year
“C’est la classe, hein. Very classy. ‘The Best’ in the background. That’s right, isn’t it. I am the best, no? Don’t I look beautiful? Beau gosse. Beautiful boy. I didn’t borrow that suit from Lionel Messi, to be fair. I just called my wife and she said: bordeaux suits you well. You know, I just wanted to do something else. Everyone usually goes in black or blue to awards shows. So not me this time. The Eden here on the picture is not a footballer, but an actor. I’m not used to being in the spotlights. That’s why I acted a bit foolish, like actors also tend to do on a red carpet. I liked being there and being honoured. Also because there were many friends around: Mo Salah, Ngolo Kanté, Kylian Mbappé, Didier Drogba, Samuel Eto’o. Tous des potes. All friends.”
“I have the feeling that even with me the ‘yes, but’ remark is gone. Every year there was somebody who said: Eden is close to the level of Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo. First Jose Mourinho, then Antonio Conte, now Maurizio Sarri. I will never become a Messi or a Ronaldo, but since the World Cup everyone immediately says top-5 in the world when my name is mentioned. Before it was maybe top-10, top-15, top-20.”
“I feel that the people now are saying ‘wow’. As Luka Modric gained respect with Croatia, I did that with the Belgians. (sighs) Recognition is nice, but all players in the top-20, except for two maybe, are so close to each other in terms of quality. All top players. And everything is decided on details. Glory at the World Cup, a win in the Champions League, 25 goals here, 25 assists there. It all influences the ranking, but the difference between the players isn’t that big.”
6. DJ Eden
“Did you know that I had talents as a deejay? (laughs) But no, I’m kidding! I got some help. There were so many people at the ‘Grand Place’ in Brussels when we returned from Russia. There was such a fantastic atmosphere. And as a captain, I was obliged to say something. After they announced my name - (imitating announcer) ‘Oui, Eden Hazard’ - I could not just wave and say ‘bonjour’, hello. That’s why I did something special. What’s that song again? Help me. ‘Freed from Desire’ by Gala.
“That song was stuck in my head for the whole tournament. Wherever you came, in every stadium, sounded that beat. When you watched images on social media, that tune. When my parents sent me videos from celebrations in Belgium, that same song again. So I told Moussa El Habchi (video analyst and deejay, red) to play that song. One that heats up the ambiance and evokes memories. Every now and then, when we play music at home, I pick that song. Because it brings back fantastic memories.“
“If you ask the people who were at the Grand Place in 1986, those who are still alive, about their experiences back then, they will all say: a memorable moment. That’s thirty years ago, hey, when Belgium finished fourth at the World Cup. We were disappointed with the bronze medal, but we still wanted to be honoured. Just in case that if a national team performs better than us in 2050, people can still recall those memories from Russia 2018 again. That they will be saying: “2018, wow, that was a wonderful year.”
“I will do the same, as an old man, as a papy with my grandchildren. It was so beautiful. Often you have the impression that Belgium is the Walloons versus the Flemish people, but there was such a sense of unity that day. The flags, the atmosphere, the fries, the beer. So typically Belgian. Everything was top.”
7. The screamer against Liverpool
“I love Anfield. The stadium, the pitch, the atmosphere. I love to play there. I have already scored several goals at Anfield – always against Simon (Mignolet), sorry!-, but this one was worth it. One of my most beautiful goals ever. It had everything. And it was also one against a big club. That gives it extra exposure. I came on with 20 minutes to play. And I lost the first five balls I touched. I thought: Oh, oops, this is all going wrong. Until I started running and dribbling. I saw the gap and kicked the ball. Bam! The excitement was huge. After the match I have watched the goal several times. On repeat. I do that from time to time in the bus. The moments you enjoy. All my friends sent me messages too. All very praising. ‘Wow’. There was even a video of the goal with the music of Titanic - didn’t you show that to me? Epic.”
8. Physio Thorgan
“That is my physio. (winks) No, no, I’m laughing. This was also a fantastic year from a sentimental point of view. Because Thorgan was there at the World Cup. He deserved that spot in the squad. He wasn’t there to do me a favor or to babysit. Thorgan has qualities. Thorgan works. Thorgan has been performing at a high level for a while. Thorgan is decisive almost every week. My brother next to me gave me that extra surplus. We didn’t sleep in the same room, but were always together.”
“Pretty normal too. I left home at the age of fourteen. Normally big brother is always there and spends a lot of time with the younger kids, but that was not the case with us. We have always remained very close. And we have had two months together to make up for lost time. The World Cup was also fantastic for our parents. They could watch their two sons together at a big tournament. And why not the three of us in four years? We are still allowed to dream, aren’t we? I hope Kylian will continue to take steps in the Belgian league.”
9. The Sportsman of the Year
“Individual trophies have never interested me that much. 2018 was maybe the best year in my career, mainly thanks to the World Cup, but other athletes earned that prize as much as I did. I am happy with the recognition. I do not play football to be respected. I even find it normal that a region, including Flanders, rather praises its own players. Players who speak their language. Or those who have played in Belgium, for their clubs. That is the only empty spot in my career: I never played football in my own country. But if the Flemish have taken me in their hearts, the better.”
“Sometimes I find it a bit embarrassing: I am the captain of the national team and I don’t speak a word of Dutch. Actually, that is not very respectful, but it’s hard for me. Now that I speak decent English, maybe I should put some effort into Dutch. Difficult language, though. I once had a year of Dutch/Flemisch lessons at school. That’s basiscally it - in France I didn’t need it. And you know what you learn in school: ‘I am Eden’, ‘I live in Braine’, ‘no problem’, ‘how are you?’. Thibaut (Courtois) always laughs with my Flemish.“
10. The eternal laugh
“I have always stayed the same. In good times. In bad times. I have a playful character. In a world where there is a lot of pressure and many tense faces, I try to be the sun - I am not the only one. I deal with everyone the same. Also at the club. From the maintenance people to the big boss. Why would I look down onto people? You have two arms and two legs, me too. I respect everyone.”
“When I get compliments over my humble character or when they sat I genuinely care about people, then I say it’s my education. My dad always repeats: ‘Football, bon c’est bien (it’s good), but one moment you sit up here (points up) on a cloud and then suddenly there, deep down’. There always comes a time when you have to descend. So pieds sur terre. Feet on the ground.”
“I like people. My real friends are people with their heart in the right place. Christian Benteke. Marouane Fellaini. Football is one, but respect is much more important. I like being among people. I like to dine out - unfortunately. I have to pay attention to the kilos, but luckily I’m training every day. I like the fun at a dining table. Sitting down, talking, good food, a glass. In that respect, I am a real Belgian. I like to entertain others. On the pitch, off the pitch. I want to continue doing that. Having fun, giving pleasure. I want to continue to evoke emotions. That’s what it’s all about.“
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