Hazard and Real Madrid still have La Liga to play for, if they can get over his laughter

Eden Hazard has friends at Chelsea, the monster. By the end of Wednesday night, it was hard to avoid the conclusion that what most hurt wasn’t that Real Madrid had been knocked out of the Champions League, or even that they had been defeated so completely, the fact that they had still been in it with five minutes to go something of a miracle and the 3-1 scoreline a small mercy, but the suspicion that it didn’t hurt their No. 7 at all. That — and forget what he did during the game, which was not much — soon after it he smiled. Laughed, in fact.

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How dare he!

You will have seen the video by now. Hazard talking to Chelsea defender Kurt Zouma and goalkeeper Edouard Mendy on the Stamford Bridge pitch, cracking up in conversation with them not long after Real lost. You may well have seen the video from Spanish TV show “El Chiringuito” too, the editorial that eviscerated him. In it, with dark brooding music, a shadow cast heavy across the set and melodramatic delivery with…

long… pauses… between… each…

… line, each more furious and affected than the last, the show’s director and presenter — judge, jury and executioner — tears into Hazard almost as much as Chelsea had torn into Madrid.

The whole of Madrid, that is: not just Hazard. Wednesday night’s semifinal second leg, just in case you didn’t see it, wasn’t the story of one man’s giggling, can’t-be-bothered, wilful failure against his former team; it was that all of them fell a long way short, every Madrid player except Thibaut Courtois. But here, it is Hazard. Here, there and everywhere, the video going viral, which is of course what they wanted.

It’s hard not to think of the final scene of “Homer Badman,” when the Simpson family are watching trashy TV show “Rock Bottom.” The show has admitted that Homer is innocent of the accusations made against him after hours of hounding him, so it turns its attention to Groundskeeper Willie instead, trumping up the charged against him, building towards another flimsy moral panic.

“That man is sick!” Homer says, when he sees Willy dramatized on screen. When Marge insists that hang on, he’s the one that saved you, Homer replies “but listen to the music! He’s evil!”

In the editorial (or is it a sermon?), Hazard is accused of laughing. Not with his friends, but at Madrid. In a monologue punctuated with heavy sighs, he is accused of spending “two years taking the piss out of Madridisimo.” Of costing €100 million and being overweight, of getting a chance he didn’t deserve. Of being, God dammit, “another Bale”. There’s a touch of the Danny De Vito: “Is something funny?” There was a touch of the TV evangelist too, building to a shouting crescendo.

“Hazard,” Josep Pedrerol says, gavel coming down, guillotine falling, “cannot continue a minute longer at Real Madrid.”

Now, briefly, before going on: €100m? It was actually more like €160m, per more credible reports in Belgium than the figures offered by Madrid. Another Bale? Over 100 goals, two league titles and four Champions Leagues, you mean? Nah, probably not. Half a Bale would be quite something. Hazard has scored four goals for Real Madrid. If we count his penalty in the shoot-out in Milan, Bale has scored that many goals just in European Cup finals. But anyway, that’s not really the point. Except that it sort of is, because it says something about how narratives and bad guys are made.

So, is there something funny to it all? Well, yes… and no. On one level, this was just “El Chiringuito” doing what “El Chiringuito” does: a shouty, silly show, a mass debate where it’s all over-the-top faux anger, confrontation and posturing, like a footballing Wrestlemania. It’s a successful model imported from Spain’s salsa rosa gossip shows, where the lives of assorted “celebrities” of varying degrees of fame and talent are endlessly argued over, tiny morsels turned into huge scavenging feasts. It would be easy to dismiss “El Chiringuito.” It’s tempting, too; it might be sensible to ignore it, or just laugh at it. To insist that it, like what Hazard did on Wednesday night, doesn’t really matter.

But it kind of does. All of it. And there is more to it. This doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and it doesn’t happen for no reason at all even though it can feel like it. The show often does reflect the attitude and voice of many Madrid fans, the polarisation of football fans and the willingness to see heroes and villains; and it often does reflect the voice and attitude of the Madrid president, with whom the director and presenter is close.

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There is a reason that this is where Florentino Perez appeared a couple of weeks ago, and it’s not because it was the perfect place to launch the super league project, as was soon made embarrassingly clear. And it is no coincidence, either, that today reports from sources close to Perez say Madrid will now listen to offers for Hazard, if there are any. They are keen to see him go, and when that happens, things like this tend to happen too: machinery moves into gear, the proverbial hounds are released.

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2:04

ESPN FC’s Steve Nicol says the reaction to Eden Hazard’s actions after the Chelsea match are over the top.

That is something Hazard might be aware of. If not, it is something his Madrid teammates — many of them conscious of what lies beneath, suspicious minds seeing hidden interests, sometimes even when there are none — will probably tell him.

It probably will not, and should not, be the only thing they tell him, because here’s the thing: context matters. Attitude does too, and performance definitely does. And while it might be superficial, something cynically sought by some and innocently overlooked by others, player behaviour matters. Their gestures really are important. Appearances matter.

Put simply: it’s a good idea to be polite and play to the gallery sometimes. Public perception plays a big part, conditioning much of what comes with it. Caesar’s wife must not just be honourable but appear so, as the phrase goes. Players have to care and look like they care, try and be seen to be trying.

Strip it down and the accusation being levelled at Hazard is that he has friends and dares to like being with them, the criminal. That he is shameless enough to smile and laugh when he is reunited with mates he hadn’t seen for a while and whom he misses. It’s absurd, and yet what he did was unwise. Not evil nor a heinous crime, but not a great idea. Naive, maybe. Perhaps a little insensitive too, however overly sensitive some Madrid fans were. Full-time was a time to be studiously solemn, those conversations better off happening out of sight. That is a sorry state of affairs, but it is one worth keeping in mind.

“It wasn’t very intelligent,” the guest on one Belgian podcast said. “He probably didn’t think. Those messages are painful for the fans. It’s not very professional.”

That guest was the father of Thibaut Courtois, and he had a point. Hazard realised that, too. At 8:30 on Thursday evening, he published an apology. He hadn’t intended to upset anyone, he said — and there’s no reason to think he had — and he does care, he insisted. “I came here to win,” he said.

On Wednesday, he didn’t. And that’s the other part of it, the context within which this all happened and within which everyone reacted. Defeat and disappointment. And, yes, interest too. Few players would have simply got away with what Hazard did after the game, but most would have got away with it or been more readily forgiven. Above all, though, it’s about players who are seen to care and who had contributed. And the truth is that, since he arrived at Madrid the most expensive player they have ever signed, Hazard hasn’t.

Hazard says he came to win things, and he could still help them do that. There are four games left in the tightest title race for years, with Spain’s top four all facing each other this weekend: Barcelona (third place, 74 points) vs. Atletico Madrid (first place, 76 points), Real Madrid (second place, 74 points) vs. Sevilla (fourth place, 70 points). Do that and maybe a pardon will follow. He has a lot of making up to do after two years of not doing much.

Mostly it’s down to bad luck: he has had five injuries and missed almost 400 days. There is a question about whose fault, if there is any fault, it is. “Something is happening. I can’t explain these things anymore,” manager Zinedine Zidane said last time Hazard got injured.

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ESPN FC’s Craig Burley was very disappointed by Real Madrid’s display vs. Chelsea.

There is something a bit perverse and in fact pretty cruel, almost grotesque, about the way that players who get injured are blamed for their misfortune — as if they want to be in pain, as if they like going under the knife, as if they want to spend months rehabilitating alone, isolated from the rest, as if they just can’t be trusted, as if it hurts everyone else more than it hurts them. As if casting them aside is an effective way of getting the best out of them, anyway.

But at the same time, the fact that patience wears thin is natural enough; patience is a virtue for which most football clubs don’t have the time. In Hazard’s first season, it was actually remarkable how little focus there was on him, perhaps because of the pandemic, perhaps because Madrid went on and won the league without him. Compare the criticism of him to what Antoine Griezmann faced at Barcelona, for example, and it’s minuscule. Hazard scored once. Griezmann scored 15 times.

This season, though, Hazard has come more sharply into focus. There’s something cumulative about that, the sense that this is a never-ending drift, day after day. And it’s not just the lack of a contribution — he has scored three goals all season — but more the suspicion that he has not always done all he could, however unjust that assumption might be. The sense that Zidane has always held a place in the team for him, to the detriment of others, conditioning everything, the message conveyed a mistaken one that breaks meritocracy.

Last season against Manchester City, this season against Chelsea: both times, Hazard was returning from injury, not fully ready. Both times he was put straight back in the team as much for his sake as theirs, with Zidane even saying something about helping him recover; both times, Madrid went out and he did nothing. It’s absurd to ever suggest that a player doesn’t want to play well, but it’s easy to see a manager’s loyalty as unreciprocated. (And, incidentally, the idea that Zidane and Hazard come almost as a package, held at the top of the club, is not an insignificant one as the politics play out).

And all the more so when there are doubts about Hazard’s commitment, the willingness to do everything he can to perform. This is the man who admitted that he came back from the summer 5 kilos overweight, saying “when I’m on holiday, I’m on holiday.” Maybe they have been spoiled with Cristiano Ronaldo, a man as obsessive as he is missed.

Filipe Luis tells the story of Hazard at Chelsea. “Eden’s the best I’ve played with,” he told The Guardian. “He’s up there with Messi, winning games alone. He didn’t run to defend much, didn’t train well, and five minutes before games he’d be playing Mario Kart in the dressing room. He trained and warmed up without tying his laces. But he’d go out and no one could take the ball. He’d dribble past three or four. If opponents got too close, he’d just pull away, so powerful.

“Watching him enjoy football [was] sweet. So intelligent: one-two, combine, go alone; assist, score, everything. Maybe he lacks the ambition to say ‘I’ll be the world’s best,’ because he could be.”

All that reads like a eulogy, and what remains might in fact be the doubts about ambition. It is Eden Hazard’s personality, and no-one would have minded much had it come with those performances at Chelsea, when he was no different a person to how he is now, and likable for it. But it didn’t, and they do. On Wednesday especially, when he also became a handy diversion from deeper problems, when he made perhaps his greatest contribution since coming to Real Madrid: he has given them someone to blame.

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