Belgium's chance at greatness there for the taking at Brazil's World Cup
Dressed in jeans and a black T-shirt, he looked like any other young fan heading to the Champions League quarterfinal between Paris Saint-Germain and Chelsea. But this was Thorgan Hazard, younger brother of Chelsea and Belgium winger Eden, and he was excited about the game ahead.
"Eden is faster with the ball than without it," Thorgan said. "He'll never forget that football's a game, and what I like when I watch him is seeing him try impossible things."
Hazard said that last season his form pushed him into the world's top 10 players, but if he is to cement that position, or indeed challenge the Lionel Messi-Cristiano Ronaldo hegemony at the top, then the next few weeks will play a pivotal role in his career. When it comes to playing for Belgium, Hazard holds up his hands and accepts any criticism that comes his way. After all, 40 caps and five goals, four of which came from penalties, is not a return that reflects his outstanding talent.
"I like the coach [Marc Wilmots], and he likes me but that doesn't give me carte blanche on the field," Hazard told Interieur Sport in a documentary called "The Normal One."
Wilmots has compared Hazard to Messi for the way he continues to play football and make dribbles while never moaning about the constant fouls that come his way. Before every match, Thorgan, who won the Soulier D'Or for Belgium's Young Player of the Year, sends Eden a text message that says, "Give the fans a feast for their eyes."
Eden Hazard does not mind when the pressure increases, and even headlines like Sport/Foot's "100% Hazard," suggesting the team is reliant on him (it's not), he takes in his stride. The irony is that this Belgium side is less reliant on Hazard's creativity than the Chelsea team under Jose Mourinho. After Chelsea's Champions League semifinal elimination to Atletico Madrid, Hazard caused a mini-storm when he told BeIn Sport: "I'm often expected to make a difference on my own and sometimes that's not easy."
That's not the case for Les Diables Rouges, where Romelu Lukaku will play up front and Dries Mertens or Kevin Mirallas start in the other wing spot (with Adnan Januzaj a handy substitute option too). Behind them Kevin de Bruyne links the midfield and attack: though a player discarded by Mourinho, his performances in qualifying were outstanding and proof that even if Hazard is not on his game, Belgium can be dangerous offensively.
The concerns for this team, though, are in defense and specifically at fullback where two center backs, Jan Vertonghen (left) and Toby Alderweireld (right) are expected to start. The last World Cup team to play four center backs across the defense was Diego Maradona's ill-conceived Argentina side from 2010, which lost 4-0 to Germany in the quarterfinal.
Anthony Vanden Borre is the other fullback option, but he is more prone to big mistakes than the others. While many in this side are used to club games at the Champions League level, this will be their first experience of major tournament football. Will the memory of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, when seven of these players reached the semifinal, provide a positive memory? Or will the buzz that surrounds this generation hinder, rather than help, them?
"The pressure on the players in Belgium is growing as we are all expecting a lot, but I think that will inspire this group, not intimidate them," Jens Cuypers, a Belgian football writer for VoetbalNieuws, told SI.com.
There are also no fears about coach Wilmots, who as a player scored five goals across two World Cup finals for Belgium (in 1998 and 2002).
"He may be a rookie at this level, but he has brought something fresh to this team, a magic, a spirit, a feeling that the players would do anything for their teammates on the pitch. That is new for this team," Cuypers said.
In 1986, Belgium reached the World Cup semifinals in Mexico, and there is a feeling that in terms of talent alone, this group in Brazil could go as far. The draw, has not worked in its favor, though. If it progresses from Group H, as it should, its next opponent could be Germany or Portugal (sorry, USA fans). Germany is one of the favorites to win the competition, while Portugal is feared because Ronaldo would be 1-on-1 against Belgium¹s weakest link, Alderweireld, on the left wing.
A factor keeping Belgium fans confident, though, is in goal. Thibaut Courtois proved himself to be among the world's best goalkeepers this season, winning La Liga and reaching the Champions League final with Atletico Madrid. He can win a game on his own and is in a similar position to Hazard: just four or five good games away from confirming what most of us know already.
"It depends on form, but I know I'm a good player, not a great player yet," Hazard said. "When I hang up my boots I want people to say I was a really great player."
A World Cup is the chance for these Belgium players to prove it.