Eden Hazard out of place at super-serious super-club Real Madrid

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<span>Photograph: Alastair Grant/AP</span>
Photograph: Alastair Grant/AP

Zinedine Zidane gets Real Madrid. What he gets above all is that the institution is not really interested in him as a person, even one as decorated and venerated as he is. The machine is the thing, and your importance extends only as far as your immediate usefulness to it. The part of you that is not Madrid is not relevant. Perhaps this is why Zidane cuts such an inane, inobtrusive figure on the touchline: like a man who possesses the secret to life, but is permitted to communicate it only via handclaps.

Sergio Ramos gets Real Madrid. On Sunday night, as Real strove for a late equaliser against Sevilla, Ramos was leading his troops into battle: screaming, fists pumping, heading every ball, crunching into every tackle. The fact that he was injured and watching from the stands was but a minor inconvenience: what Ramos gets above all is that even if you are not wearing the uniform, when you are a Madrid player you are never anything else.

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Eden Hazard came on for the last 10 minutes of that game. It was, charitably, a mixed bag. He jogged around a little. He played a nice flick to nobody. Once, he had a chance to shoot, but couldn’t control the ball. Another time, the ball ran under his foot and out for a throw. In the 95th minute, he scored an entirely accidental equaliser when a hopeful shot hit his heel and bobbled in. It was a goal that kept Madrid in the title race. And yet after another turbulent, contested week in Hazard’s Madrid career, it was tempting to wonder whether anything had really changed. It was Hazard’s fifth Madrid goal in two injury-plagued seasons.

Frustration at his lack of games has long since given way to anger: stoked most recently by the photograph of Hazard laughing with his former Chelsea teammates after the Champions League defeat on Wednesday. And so the familiar questions bubble away. Can Hazard save his Madrid career? Will he ever rediscover his best form? Is he in physical decline? Can Madrid afford to replace him in the summer? Can they afford not to? These are all pertinent and interesting questions, and yet somehow entirely the wrong questions.

The real issue here, surely, is what on earth Hazard is doing at Madrid in the first place, the answer to which is a good deal more complex than it first appears. “I’m not a galactico, I’m just a very good football player,” Hazard announced on his arrival, and somehow this encapsulates the essential tension between a player for whom football is simply a job, a game, a buzz, and a club for whom it is the alpha and omega of the universe.

This is not to suggest Hazard doesn’t care. Clearly he does. But I can think of no other footballer of his level so determined to define his own terms of success, of happiness. He doesn’t have an agent, has no desire to be famous, plays the game not by rote but by feel, instinct and a desire to please. In a way, he’s football’s answer to Ronnie O’Sullivan: an athlete who you suspect operates primarily on the plane of their own boredom/interest.

This is a player who, according to his former Chelsea teammate Filipe Luis, “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”. Who returned to pre-season training several kilos overweight and declared: ‘When I’m on holiday, I’m on holiday.” Who said of his injury troubles: “It’s not the end of the world for me, because I can spend time with my kids.” Who joined Madrid not because he had to, or because it was what was expected of him, or because Mino Raiola thought it was the right move, but because he’d always thought they were cool. This alone renders Hazard an outlier in elite football, which reveres the single-minded pursuit of success at all costs. Want this. Bleed for this. Die for this.

What did we think was going to happen when this fun-loving figure of human complexity and human sensitivity collided with the most supercilious, super-serious super-club machine on Earth? Ramos left Sevilla 16 years ago in circumstances so acrimonious that his parents are still not welcome at the stadium. That is a proper Madrid departure. Madrid could forgive Hazard his injuries, his loss of form, even its own folly in paying £130m it couldn’t afford for a 28-year-old whose game relies on explosive sharpness. But it never forgives irreverence. The furore over the Chelsea photo is understandable only when you realise the cardinal rules that Hazard broke. The part of you that is not Madrid is not relevant. And when you are a Madrid player, you are never anything else.

Football feels like an impossibly angry place at the moment: a place of disenchantment and disenfranchisement, of schism and sneering, of protest and existential crisis. And in the middle of it all, this flawed, smirking, abundantly talented footballer, who amid all the derision and white-hot rage simply carries on being Eden Hazard: playing a little football, earning good money, spending time with his family, eating whatever he wants. And perhaps there is a wider resistance here: against the idea that a person must be defined by their work, that a human can be reduced to their productive output, against the basic po-faced sanctimony of sport.

You see a squandered talent and a £130m transfer flop. I see a hero for our times.