SAINT PETERSBURG, Russia — Eden Hazard had a smile on his face and a bronze medal around his neck after inspiring Belgium to victory in the World Cup third-place playoff against England in St. Petersburg.
In the heat of the moment, it meant something to the Chelsea forward to end Russia 2018 on a high, but when he flies back home after this tournament, the smile may fade once the pangs of regret begin to kick in. Hazard and Belgium could have — and maybe should have — been contesting the World Cup final against Croatia in Moscow on Sunday.
Their semifinal defeat to France on Tuesday denied them that privilege, but there is little to separate the two sides in terms of which is the best team of the tournament. Ultimately, France’s 1-0 win in the semifinal over their neighbours settles the debate in their favour, but Hazard and Belgium have finally lived up to the hype on the big stage at this World Cup.
Where Belgium go from here largely depends on how many of Roberto Martinez’s older players are able to hang on for another crack at a major tournament. Vincent Kompany, Jan Vertonghen, Dries Mertens, Mousa Dembele and Marouane Fellaini are all in their 30s, with Toby Alderweireld, Nacer Chadli and Axel Witsel not far behind.
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For Hazard, though, his personal destiny is much more in his hands. At 27, he has just enjoyed a superb World Cup and he can now go on a well-earned summer break knowing that his future is brighter than it was at the end of last season.
On the international stage, he and Kevin De Bruyne will become even more important for Belgium, who will believe they can win Euro 2020 and mount a serious challenge at Qatar 2022 if they can successfully replace the older generation.
But from a club perspective, Hazard has raised his value in Russia and banished many of the doubts that have hovered over him.
It is true that he has yet to own the Champions League stage as his talents suggest that he should, and if he stays at Chelsea this summer, he will have to wait another year at least before testing himself against the best due to his club only qualifying for this season’s Europa League. But Hazard’s performances in Russia, and his contractual situation at Chelsea, where he has just two years left to run, ensure that he will be a top target for all the major clubs on the lookout for top talent.
Antonio Conte’s departure as Chelsea manager might play in the club’s favour when it comes to persuading him to stay at Stamford Bridge, with Maurizio Sarri’s attacking style more likely to appeal to Hazard, but if Real Madrid or Barcelona come calling, Chelsea will have a problem. Real have been long-term admirers of Hazard, and the European champions now have a Cristiano Ronaldo-size hole in their squad following the Portuguese forward’s exit to Juventus.
Until this World Cup, Real may have regarded Hazard as still having to prove himself at the very highest level, but he was outstanding in Belgium’s quarterfinal win against Brazil and unlucky not to make a crucial difference against France. In the third-place game against England, Hazard tore Gareth Southgate’s team apart and deservedly netted his third goal of the competition in Belgium’s 2-0 win.
When the World Cup honours lists are compiled, Kylian Mbappe and Luka Modric will probably be ahead of Hazard for the best player award, but nobody else will. Hazard has outshone the likes of Neymar, Lionel Messi and Ronaldo at this tournament, so he can certainly reflect on Russia 2018 as a personal success.
The big question surrounds what he will choose to do with his new status. This is a key summer for Hazard, with the vacancy at Real and Chelsea’s lack of Champions League football both pointing towards him seeking a move elsewhere.
Chelsea, who have become a club that will sell for the right price, will also be aware that they could seriously cash in on Hazard this summer. His value has never been higher, but neither has Hazard’s reputation, so the smile on his face after the game against England might have had more to do with that than the bronze medal he was wearing.