For Chelsea, the news sounds ominous. “I know what I am going to do,” Eden Hazard told French radio station RMC this week. “I have made a decision.” He did not say what that decision was, but the strong implication is that he will be leaving Chelsea in the summer, almost certainly to join Real Madrid.
On the face of it, that seems like the only reasonable decision to make. Real Madrid, after all, has won the last three Champions League titles and is, from a revenue standpoint, the wealthiest club in the world. Chelsea wasn't even in the Champions League this season, and although Roman Abramovich’s wealth is effectively boundless, a recent policy of retrenchment at Stamford Bridge–and the looming potential of a transfer ban–means there are no guarantees Chelsea will be challenging even for the Premier League title any time soon. Salary is unlikely to be an issue at either club but, if it came down to it, Madrid could pay more.
Yet Hazard is an unusual player. He is not as driven, as many players are, by money or fame or ambition, always seeking the next big move. On the contrary, he seems devoted to his family and is conscious of the risks of uprooting his wife and three children from London, where they are settled and happy. To call him lazy or unambitious would be unfair, but Hazard is somebody who likes doing things his way, on the pitch and off.
That was something that lay at the heart of the eventual breakdown of his relationship with Jose Mourinho–although, notably, it was soon patched up once they stopped working together. There was a point, though, when Chelsea was winning the title in 2014-15, when Hazard’s father observed that Mourinho was the manager who could make his son great, precisely because he thought he would force him to challenge himself.
Sport, perhaps, is slightly strange in this regard. In most walks of life, somebody performing a trade with a great deal of skill and success, who is devoted to and considerate of his family and seems broadly happy would be regarded as a model for others to follow. In football, there is dour talk of comfort zones. When Maurizio Sarri speaks of Hazard not being a leader, he is right, but that perhaps isn’t the indictment many seem to think.
At 28, though, with his contract at Chelsea set to expire in June of next year, it is time for Hazard to make a decision–one that he has teased for multiple transfer windows and spoken openly about. Does he commit to Chelsea and accept he will spend all his peak years at Stamford Bridge, or does he, after seven years at the club, gamble for something greater? His trophy haul is modest: two league titles, an FA Cup, a League Cup and a Europa League in England to go with the French league and cup double he won with Lille in 2010-11. Realistically, if he wants a chance of winning the Champions League, he needs to go now.
Although form has improved in recent weeks, Madrid remains a club in transition following the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo. Hazard would fit in comfortably enough on the left, and there’s no reason why he wouldn’t dovetail neatly with Karim Benzema, a forward adept at dropping deep and creating space for others to cut in from the wing. Where that would leave Gareth Bale is anyone’s guess, although his situation has been confused for some time.
Chelsea already has Christian Pulisic arriving in the summer and, while that’s not a like-for-like replacement in terms of style, it is somebody to operate on the left and, moreover, somebody who might be more suited to the hard-pressing demands of Maurizio Sarri than Hazard has been. Nor is it a like-for-like replacement in terms of profile, swapping proven quality for potential. Selling Hazard probably would bring in more than $120 million, which might help fund a permanent deal for Gonzalo Higuain, but if this is to be a squad that is to play the sort of football Sarri wants, it requires significant remodelling–and there’s very little evidence Chelsea has either the wherewithal or the resources for that.
All of which are likely to be factors helping edge Hazard out of the door. Once he goes, though, Chelsea will lack its one player with obvious global star quality, and the sense of slowly diminishing ambition will be compounded.