Belgium had the time of our lives in 2018: Hazard
In less than a month’s time, Belgium will return to football’s greatest stage – for the 14th time – at the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022. Playmaker Eden Hazard is likely to play a key role for Les Diables Rouges at the tournament, and FIFA caught up with him for an exclusive chat.
The Real Madrid man, who has captained Belgium since 2015, hopes that the team can follow up their achievements at Russia 2018 by at least emulating that strong performance in the Middle East.
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Spurred on by massive popular fervour, Belgium should have the wherewithal to extricate themselves from a tricky-looking group that includes the runners-up from four years ago, Croatia, a constantly improving Morocco, and a Canada team that took everyone by surprise during the Concacaf qualifiers
The Belgian national team is made up of a number of players with more than 100 caps under their belts – Mertens, Vertonghen, Witsel, etc. That’s quite unique in football…
Eden Hazard: I don’t know, I would imagine that there a few other teams out there who have a few. But we’re lucky to have a group of players who’ve known each other really well for several years now. There’s always talk of the ‘golden generation’, but there’s some truth to it. We’ve spent almost 10 years together. Now we’ve got young players starting to come through. Our collective experience has definitely helped us in previous tournaments, so I hope that it’ll continue in the same vein for some time yet.
Speaking of which, do you think that the squad deserves that ‘golden generation’ nickname?
No, I think we’ll deserve it when we win something. Of course, we’ve got an incredible generation of players, but we still haven’t won anything. If we really want to earn that ‘golden generation’ nickname, I think that’s the one thing we still need to do.
This will be your second FIFA World Cup with Roberto Martinez at the helm. What would you say is his main attribute as a coach?
It would be difficult to just pick one. I think he has a lot of great attributes, and he’s shown that for several years now, and that was the case even before he took charge of the national team. He’s the kind of person who absolutely loves football and is truly excited by sport. He’s always exploring new methods. He talks a lot with his players, and I think that’s probably his best quality as a coach. I don’t care for coaches who aren’t close to their players, even if they’re great at their job. This is especially true for national coaches, given that we don’t see each other very often.
Going back to Russia 2018, would you say the 3-2 victory over Japan was your best match of the tournament?
All of the matches were pretty important, in fact. In all our games, we felt like there were times when things really clicked, like in the opener against Panama, where we struggled a bit in the first half but ended up winning 3-0. The Japan match was one of those roller coasters you’re involved in sometimes as a footballer. We went from losing 2-0 and feeling utter despair to winning with the last kick of the game. Those emotions and sensations are difficult to describe – you really had to be there to experience them. That day, all Belgian fans felt the same way.
You came so close against France, when you lost 1-0 in the semi-finals…
So near and yet so far. But we were proud to have got that far, and to have lost against the future champions. I think everything’s already been said about that match. We might have played the best football at the World Cup, but we didn’t win. Maybe it would have been preferable to not play as well and win. What’s great about football is that every four years there’s a new World Cup where you get another chance to shine. It’s up to us to give our all in this World Cup
What do you remember personally about the 2018 World Cup?
As far I’m concerned, it was a fantastic World Cup. Personally and collectively, it was amazing. I experienced emotions I’d never felt before. The way that we played was impressive – everyone was just so good. Honestly, it was just incredible to spend the entire World Cup with all the players, staff and supporters. We enjoyed ourselves so much. We didn’t win it, but we had the time of our lives.
It seemed like the reception you got from fans in the Grand Place in Brussels after the tournament was the icing on the cake.
Those images were just brilliant, and again, those are moments that you’ll never forget, whether you’re a player or a supporter. Now, you know as well as I do that in football, people have short memories. Another challenge is right around the corner in November and December, and we’re going to have to try to do even better. Otherwise the fans won’t be happy, which is perfectly understandable.
You’ve suffered from several injuries over the past few months. What do you take away from that period?
It’s been a bit tricky. There have been a few things: quite a few injuries, as well as doubts and stuff like that. But now, everything’s back to normal. The one thing I’m looking forward to is being able to prove on the pitch that I’m still at my best, and there’s not much else to say on that topic.
After playing so many matches alongside Romelu Lukaku, where would you rank him in the list of world’s best strikers?
He’s right up there. At his age, there are very few players who’ve succeeded in doing what he does at international level, except perhaps Ronaldo and Messi, and maybe Neymar with Brazil. He’ll keep scoring goals; he’s still only 29. He’s still got a lot to give the national team, but what he’s already achieved is marvellous. Anything he does from here on in is just a bonus.
What are your views on your Group F opponents?
We’re going to play some pretty good teams: Croatia, Morocco and Canada. Everyone’s familiar with Croatia; they’ve got some incredible players. I’m fortunate enough to play alongside Luka Modric, their captain, every day. There’s not much you can say about him that hasn’t already been said. They’re a talented team, and that’s why they reached the final four years ago.
And what about Canada and Morocco?
We don’t know Canada and Morocco as well, but we’ll have the time to learn all about them. They’ve got very good players. Morocco have [Achraf] Hakimi in their team, so that shows you that they have a lot of potential as well. In any case, the fact that they’ve made it to the World Cup is a sign they’re a great team.
Canada have some skilful players too, like Jonathan David. I don’t know him personally, but I’ve been keeping an eye on him because he’s at Lille, one of my former clubs. It’s always enjoyable to play against sides from other continents that you don’t know all that well, to learn about their style of play and their mental approach. That’s the beauty of the World Cup.
Finally, what can fans expect from Eden Hazard at Qatar 2022?
I have to set the bar high. I’m going to try to do better than in 2018. It’ll be tough because that was already pretty good. I’m fortunate to be the captain of a great team and a big footballing nation, and so we owe it to ourselves to have high expectations.
Text and photos: FIFA