Once again Real Madrid were playing Barcelona, the latest game in this greatest of rivalries; once again, two of their superstars stepped forward to give them the lead. Karim Benzema strode forward and delivered a pass into the path of one of the game’s most gifted wingers, one whose form had long ago made him undroppable, and he duly provided a superb finish, thrashing the ball high into the net. As Vinicius Jr. turned away in triumph, having scored his 15th goal of a thoroughly impressive season, Eden Hazard watched from the bench. One wonders whether he was thinking something along the lines of: “What a beautiful goal, but the man of the moment at this club should be me.”
Hazard went to Real Madrid to become a legend, but his body failed him. He had dreamed of this transfer since childhood. When he finally turned up for his appointment with destiny after leaving Chelsea in 2019, he found a sign on the back of the office door saying “do not disturb.” Much was made—and unkindly so—of his excess weight upon his arrival in Spain, due perhaps in part to his celebration of this career-defining move. Yet this was not the first summer of revelry that Hazard had enjoyed. The real problem was that he was now amassing injuries at a worrying speed. Just look at the startling rate of Hazard’s physical deterioration. In seven spectacular seasons at Chelsea, during which time he won two Premier League titles, a League Cup, an FA Cup, and two UEFA Europa Leagues, he missed a total of 21 games through injury. By the end of 2021, well into his third season at Real Madrid, he had already missed 61. Unsurprisingly, this string of ailments has severely affected his acceleration. At Chelsea, he would score around once every three games: at Madrid, that frequency has dropped to one in 10. But looking beyond statistics, there is the damning evidence provided by the naked eye. When it came to his mesmerizing ability to float past defenders at top speed, Hazard was once second only to Leo Messi. Now, though, that asset is greatly diminished. His only consolation, if any, is that he is far from alone.
There is a special category of technically sublime footballers whose attacking threat was largely based upon their explosiveness and who, once they lost that attribute, became tragically unrecognizable. Andriy Shevchenko was swift as a hurricane during his peak, yet when he moved from AC Milan to Chelsea, he became a mere mortal, as did Kaká when he also left AC Milan to join Real Madrid, as did Fernando Torres when signed by Chelsea. Elsewhere, Wayne Rooney and more recently Alexis Sánchez have been reduced to exhausted husks of their former selves, the latter looking far happier at Inter Milan now that he has actually had some rest.
Given the vast wages that many footballers earn, there can often be a lack of sympathy for the workloads that some players must endure. Sean Dyche, the Burnley manager, recently gave an interview in which he scoffed at what he saw as an excessive focus on player welfare. It is easy to forget, with remarks like that from Dyche, that it is normal for many footballers to navigate the bulk of their peak years in a constant state of pain; for example, Didier Drogba played with a groin injury for six years.
There are many reasons a player’s conditioning may fall off a cliff, but the lack of recovery time is chief among them. Last October, Thomas Tuchel, when explaining the poor form of club-record signing Romelu Lukaku, observed that footballers were expected to play “too much football in too many competitions … if you play a thousand matches a year it can feel a bit heavy.” Jürgen Klopp, supported by Pep Guardiola, has expressed similar sentiments, saying, “It’s obvious that it’s too much, absolutely obvious. … Everybody involved in the game will tell you that, and you know it as well.” Klopp was not entirely right—there are several clubs with far fewer resources who cannot understand why institutions as rich as Liverpool and Manchester City are complaining—but this issue goes beyond money. While every supporter loves a footballer who will push themselves to their limits, there should probably be, well, limits to that desire. For an extreme case of this, we can look at Fiorentina, Roma, and Argentina legend Gabriel Batistuta, whose physical pain upon retirement was such that—as he told one reporter—“I couldn’t get out of bed on some days. I’d be crying with anger and I said to myself: ‘It can’t go on like this’ … I felt sick, so sick that I went to a doctor friend of mine and asked him to amputate my legs. I prayed to him, I insisted. I told him that this was no longer life.”
Batistuta’s game, like the other greats mentioned above, was based greatly upon ferocious acceleration, an asset that he seemed to use at every available opportunity. It is grim that, after leaving the game, his body forced him to pay such a huge tax on his ambition. It is similarly grim to see Hazard struggling to return to his peak now, and here the words of José Mourinho, who coached Chelsea to a Premier League title when Hazard was at Stamford Bridge, feel all the more poignant. “The way, match to match, he’s being punished by opponents and not protected by referees … maybe one day we won’t have Eden Hazard,” said Mourinho in January 2015, following a particularly bruising defeat to Tottenham Hotspur. “It’s one, two, three, four, five, 10 aggressive fouls against him. They kick and kick and kick, and the kid resists. He’s a very honest guy in the way he plays, but that’s another problem.”
Years later, it turns out that it was a problem: that Hazard’s decline, like that of Shevchenko and Torres and Batistuta and others before them, has been hastened by playing the game he loves with a rare fearlessness, holding nothing back. And maybe there’s a tragic beauty in that: These footballers, in the words of that classic poem by Dylan Thomas, did not “go gentle into that good night,” but tore into it with all the force and courage they had; they raged against the dying of their talent, all the while leaving endless rows of defeated defenders behind them.