As a barefoot toddler he stunned his local club with sublime skills. That boy grew into the 32m man who has lit up the Premier League. This is the story of the Eden Project
21:45 GMT, 13 September 2012
He was little more than a dot in the distance, but Royal Stade Brainois football club had just reseeded their pitch and he was treading where he shouldn’t.
It needed pointing out, and general manager Pascal Delmoitiez intended doing it forcibly, as he stepped out of the clubhouse behind the goal and headed for the other end.
As he approached the far penalty area, the object of his wrath remained little more than a dot, but his mood began to mellow. No more than primary school age, the youngster was carefully placing a ball on the spot, taking a couple of paces back and clipping it into the top corner, before retrieving it and starting all over again.
Not only was he barely waist-high to the advancing club official, he had nothing on his feet. It was a sight that stopped Delmoitiez in his tracks, but, sensing he may be in for a ticking off, the boy darted towards the garden fence of his home, behind the left-wing corner flag, clambered over it and disappeared inside.
The first to spot him: Pascal Delmoitiez of Royal Stade Brainois
The neat detached bungalow belonged to Thierry and Carine Hazard. The bare-footed penalty-taker was their son Eden. ‘That’s my first memory of Eden, and it remains a vivid one to this day,’ said Delmoitiez. ‘We don’t allow anyone on the pitch between games, as a general rule. To make matters worse, it had just been reseeded, so he was going to be told.
‘But as I got nearer, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. He was tiny, no more than five years old, yet every penalty was flying into the top corner. Then I noticed he had nothing on his feet. No boots, no trainers, not even socks. And it was a real ball, not a light plastic one.
‘I couldn’t understand how he was able to do that. I walked the length of the pitch, meaning to send him away with a flea in his ear, but I ended up knocking on his parents’ door and inviting him to practise with the juniors at our training ground nearby.
‘He was an astonishing talent even then. He would listen to what you told him, but you couldn’t really teach him anything. You just threw him a ball, or passed it to him, and let him get on with it. It all came so naturally.’
For club and country: Hazard has been instrumental in Chelsea's 100 per cent start to the season and impressed as Belgium drew with Croatia (below)
The ground, Avenue du Stade in the small town of Braine-le-Comte, around 30 kilometres south-west of Brussels, has an appealingly rural feel to it but is on the modest side. A tiny terrace, covered by a corrugated roof, offers sheltered viewing on one side, but there are grass banks on the other and behind the goal that adjoins what is still the Hazard home.
It houses Belgian League Division Five football, but perhaps a greater claim to fame is that it launched the career of a player who had every top club in Europe after him when he decided to move on from Lille in the summer.
Eden Hazard chose Chelsea and a handful of games in, their 32million outlay is already beginning to look one of Roman Abramovich’s sounder investments. He has forced a rethink among those who feared his slight frame might not withstand the physical challenge of the Barclays Premier League. There were plenty of them, but they did not include anyone from his formative years at Royal Stade or his second club, AFC Tubize.
Hazard moved five kilometres up the road to Tubize at 10 years old, and the Second Division club’s youth co-ordinator Fathi Ennabli provided Sportsmail with an insight into the impact he made, on and off the pitch.
‘I was with one of the youth coaches when we discovered Eden at a local tournament,’ he said. ‘He had just turned eight at the time and was tiny, but something happened every time he got the ball. His touch was exceptional and so was his acceleration over the first couple of yards. It was taking him past one player after another and I remember walking up and down the touchline, asking where his dad was.
Nurturing the talent: Fathi Ennabli of AFC Tubize helped Hazard to progress
‘Eventually I was pointed in the direction of Thierry. We had a good chat, and he said he was in favour of Eden joining a bigger club. I was relieved to hear that, but not what followed. He insisted Eden was still too young, mentally and physically, for that sort of step up and should stay where he was for another couple of years.
‘That was the longest two years of my life. He inevitably attracted interest from other clubs, and I soon got to hear that Anderlecht and Standard Liege were contacting Thierry on a weekly basis, begging him to let Eden join them.
‘But Eden is lucky to have parents like Thierry and Carine. They are both teachers, both incredibly down to earth, modest people, and, at that age, they felt he should remain as near to home as possible. Thierry was playing for us by the time Eden turned 10. He was decent himself, and it meant he knew the coaching philosophy at the club and could be sure his son would be given the right guidance.
‘So finally, Eden became our player, training with us regularly and playing for our youth teams. And he just got better and better.
‘There was something about him, apart from natural ability, that told me he was going to the very top. He always wanted to be out there, working on his game and trying to improve, for one thing.
Close family: (from left) Eden's grandmother Nicole, brother Kylian, mother Carine, Eden, brother Ethan, grandfather Francis and father Thierry
‘He loved watching the French League. There was a highlights programme called TeleFoot, a bit like Match of the Day, and he never missed it. He would come in, full of enthusiasm for something Zinedine Zidane had done, and you just knew he couldn’t wait to try it himself. He was an avid watcher and would take it all in.
‘He had so much going for him. He was very quiet but unfailingly polite, and there was a steely determination about him. He was actually fearless. He was always up against bigger, often older, boys, but it never fazed him.
‘No amount of pressure could shake his self-belief. He knew how good he was and what he could do, and sometimes it even took his dad by surprise. I remember one game in particular. Eden was 12, and we got a free-kick a few metres outside the area. He took a couple of paces and bent it round the wall into the top corner. It was an incredible goal for a lad his age, but the referee said he hadn’t whistled and disallowed it.
‘Thierry was standing next to me, and while we were all shaking our heads, he shouted, “I’d like to see you do that again, son”.
Where it all began: Hazard's family home backs on to the pitch in Branois
‘Eden calmly put the ball down, waited for the whistle and clipped it in the same top corner. It was a carbon copy of the first one. Even by his standards, it amazed us all, and Thierry turned to me and said, “I think he did that to annoy me!”
‘He was playing on full-sized pitches by now, and word was spreading that we had a special talent on our hands. Clubs were contacting us all the time, and Lille were turning up to virtually every game he played. We knew we were about to lose him, and it was always likely to be Lille. It’s only half-an-hour away by train, and their academy even included a boarding school. The boys eat, sleep and learn there. It was ideal, and, at 15, we had to say goodbye to him.
‘He went with our blessing, but we didn’t exactly benefit financially from it. We received nothing to begin with, and we’ll only get a small slice of the fee Chelsea paid Lille for him, maybe around 150,000. But the money doesn’t matter. It’s enough for us that we played a part in his development.
‘Everyone here is incredibly proud of that. We’ve all followed his progress closely, and if there’s a chance to see him in action for Chelsea, everything else stops. There’s a huge lounge at the top of the main stand, looking out on to the pitch, and you can watch games from there.
‘It was pretty full the other Sunday, but there was a television on in the background, showing highlights from England. As soon as the presenter mentioned Chelsea, everyone turned away from our game and crowded round the TV to watch Eden.
Cool control: Hazard slots a penalty home in the 2-0 win over Newcastle
‘There’s nothing he can’t achieve. His mental strength is as remarkable as his talent, and that has already shown itself at Chelsea. We heard people expressing doubts about him after a couple of friendlies and then the Community Shield. He perhaps wasn’t at his best in those games and the media questioned whether he could cope with the physical side of English football. When you think how much Chelsea paid, and the intense scrutiny he was under, that’s a lot of pressure for a kid his age. But just look how he responded.
‘He has been their best player in the opening Premier League games and that shows incredible strength of character. I know how hungry he is to keep improving, and I’m certain that will happen.’
They haven’t seen the last of Eden in Tubize, or Braine-le-Comte. On a recent visit home, the 21-year-old had dinner at Ennabli’s house to update him on early impressions of Stamford Bridge, while Tubize general manager Guy Brison revealed how Eden intends to ensure the Hazard name lives on in nearby Braine-le-Comte.
‘There are two old houses, side by side, that belonged to Eden’s grandad,’ he said. ‘He has bought them both, with the intention of turning them into flats and building a small sports hall behind, on what was the back gardens.
‘I have known the Hazards, the parents and grandparents, for years, and they are a very close-knit family. This is a way of keeping alive his grandad’s memory and it is typical of Eden. We are all proud of what he has done and, especially, that he will never forget his roots, no matter how far he goes in the game.’