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End of an era at Stamford Bridge (2012-2019)

It was a shimmy. It was always a shimmy.

I’ve only ever been to one Chelsea game in my life. A mid-January evening in 2013. It was a League Cup (Carling? Carabao? Mickey Mouse??) Semifinal against Swansea at Stamford Bridge. We lost 2-0. Anthony Taylor was a w*nker the referee.

We had a strong lineup too. Lampard was playing. So was Oscar. And Johnny Kills. I was hyped.

There was also this diminutive Belgian shuttling about. It was his first season with us.

It’s something you only truly appreciate in the flesh. I’m also a huge basketball fan (shout-out to my Raptors), and basketball just might be the best sport to experience in person. The athleticism and skill on display is legitimately otherworldly. I’ve seen Giannis Antetokounmpo make the court shrink, I’ve seen John Wall make people look like they’re running in mud.

But nothing, and I mean nothing, compared to seeing Eden that day.

I’ve been to a Barcelona game. Leo Messi was playing. It was a Copa del Rey Semifinal against Sevilla at the Nou Camp. It was February of 2013. Messi was something else. He ambled. He walked. He never left first gear. Until either Andrés Iniesta or Xavi had the ball. And then he was off. He scored two goals that day. But I left the stadium convinced Andrés Iniesta was the real star, the real brains of the outfit. Messi wouldn’t run unless Iniesta had the ball.

It reminded me of that time I went to a game in Cape Town, in the summer of 2010. I watched the Netherlands play Cameroon. Robin van Persie ambled. Walked. Unless Wesley Sneijder had the ball. And then he was off.

That’s the thing about watching games live, in the flesh. You see things you otherwise wouldn’t notice on television. And, most importantly, you realize who’s actually good. Your eyes don’t lie.

Professional sports are the pinnacle of athletic achievement. It truly is the best against the best. Which is what makes certain players, certain athletes all that more incredible. Giannis is just better. John Wall was just faster. Messi… boy.

Chelsea v Swansea City - Capital One Cup Semi-Final Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images

I left Stamford Bridge that evening back in 2013 convinced of something. Eden Hazard was going to be a star. Our star. He was the best player on the pitch. He made it look so easy. That’s the thing that sets the best apart from the rest. You see it in every sport. When someone playing at the highest level makes the sport appear easy. That’s when you know. Think of Roger Federer. Effortless.

Eden was effortless. Effervescent. He skipped and shimmied. He danced and glided. Nobody could touch him. He was everywhere. A wonderful riposte to the stationary Messi, who would calculate every burst of energy. Eden didn’t care. He just wanted to ball. It was like he was on skates, and everyone else was on ice. He was 22 years old. The world at his feet.

He was to end that season a Europa League Champion. He was the driving force. I still recall an incredible winning goal against I want to say… Sparta Prague? It was the 92nd minute, he picked the ball up around half and went on one of his trademark runs, slaloming through defenders and slamming the ball in with his left. It became a bit of a calling card.

He picked up an injury in the Semi-Final and missed the final. (The Chelsea historian in me loves the parallels with Callum Hudson-Odoi here.) No matter, we won the game anyway.

He was always going to leave

There’s a tradition in England. Arguably started by David Beckham. A player becomes too big, too good, too marketable. There’s only one destination after that. Madrid. Cristiano Ronaldo was next. Then Bale.

It was always going to be Eden.

The question was not if, but when.

But there’s also a tradition at Chelsea. We do not lose our best players. Not when they’re in their prime. Not when they’re essential to the team. Except once. Just once. In 2007. When Real Madrid came calling for a 23-year-old oft-injured winger who had the world at his feet. He finally made his name in Germany a few years later, nearly stole the World Cup back in 2014, too.

(The Salahs, De Bruynes, etc. weren’t essential to the team; they were prospects with potential whom we misused.)

Eden was the next one.

The question was not if, but when.

Real Madrid Unveil New Signing Eden Hazard Photo by Angel Martinez/Getty Images

The reports first started surfacing in earnest after the first title win back in 2015. Fresh off a player of the year campaign. He was 24 at the time. Same age as when Cristiano Ronaldo decamped for Madrid. Bale, too.

He stayed. Suffered through Mourinho’s annulus horribilis. Got dragged through the mud by the press. He’s flaky. He’s inconsistent. He doesn’t track back. He doesn’t score enough. He’s not a big game player. He’s too nice. He doesn’t have that killer instinct. Stop me if you’ve heard this before…

The reports dissipated after that season. Madrid don’t sign attacking players on the back of 6-goal seasons finishing in the Premier League’s midtable.

We won again in 2017. New manager, same old style: counter attack with panache. He should have been player of the year, but the voters were still scarred. And high on Kanté, which is fair. Madrid came calling again.

Chelsea v Sunderland - Premier League Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images

He stayed again. Not sure why. I think he really does love us. Suffered through Conte’s annulus horribilis. For a brief moment — punctuated by that first game against Atlético in the Champs League — it appeared he was going to finally have his European moment at the big kids’ table. In the end he was anonymous when we were turfed by Barcelona in the knockout legs, hampered by Conte playing him as a center forward and overshadowed by a truly incredible Willian performance. (Seriously, Willian was the best player on the pitch over both legs, and yes, I’m aware Messi was playing and bagged a brace. Fight me.)

We dropped into the Europa League and got another new manager. Eden’s sixth — Di Matteo, Benítez, Mourinho, Hiddink, Conte, Sarri for those keeping track — and the first since RDM to deploy him in an explicitly attacking style. And the first to have an actual philosophy wedded to his attacking style. (Shout-out to RDM for his “lets just throw MaZaCar on the pitch and see what happens” approach.)

Eden wandered off to the World Cup. This time installed as the captain of Belgium. He led them to a third place finish, eliminating Neymar in the process. Firmly establishing himself as the third best player in the world behind the two usual suspects. He was the star of the World Cup. Madrid always sign the star of the World Cup, to varying degrees of success. (Shout-out to Hummus Rodríguez, wherever he’s playing these days.)

He was gone. Madrid were going to get their man. Finally. He was 27, too. Right in his prime.

But he stayed. For one more season. And led us back to the Champions League, and in a delicious bookend, won the Europa League again. This time, he started the final and was the star of the show, scoring twice. His final flourish. Proving once and for all, that he belongs at the big kids’ table.

We knew then what we know now. It was to be his last act. I remember him saying something years ago, that if he were to ever leave Chelsea it would be on a high. And how!

Chelsea v Arsenal - UEFA Europa League Final Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images

Sports, like life, are cyclical in nature. The history of football belies that fact. There are many ways of looking at Chelsea’s history. We can parse it into a variety of eras. There’s the foundation (1905-1950s); early success (the 1950s); fluctuating success and first European adventures (1960s and 1970s); the lean years (1980s); the foreign explosion (1990s); the early Abramovich years (2004-2012) and now the Eden era.

I still remember the summer of 2012. When all of Europe’s elite clubs were put on blast. He just won player of the year in France. He could go anywhere in the world. If we were to play this game in 2019, what are the chances this player actually signs for Chelsea? Let’s be honest.

He announced it on Twitter — the cheek of it! I remember jumping for joy that day. As if it wasn’t enough to finally win the Champions League, we just signed the best young player in the world! He was exactly who we thought we needed to kick on the new era of success. We now know how it all ended, but those heady days in 2012 and 2013 when we trotted out Hazard, Mata, Oscar ... those heady days of 2014 when we trotted out De Bruyne and Lukaku with Hazard ... we dreamed and dreamed. Salah joined up... We kept dreaming.

We now know how it all ended. But we know how life is. The best laid plans…

Signing for the champion’s league winner

Personally, I find it quite fitting that Eden started and left with Europa Leagues. Europe’s second competition. He joined us at the end of a cycle. And led us through another.

Our first cycle under Abramovich was explicitly about gatecrashing. In many ways, City are lucky that we did it first, that we took most of the opprobrium over “buying titles” before it was cool. And we crashed through. We thought we’d done it 2008, and [FUN] me were we ever close. The width of one post.

Drogba left in 2012, Lamps and Ash in 2014, Petr in 2016 and JT in 2017. But 2012 was the end of that era. Eden was the shining light of a new one.

We’re an established global team now. That first cycle was critical. Twinned perfectly with the rise of the internet and globalization, the Chelsea brand is omnipresent from Malaysia to Mozambique.

After the first cycle, there were rumblings of change. Abramovich wanted a more attractive style of play. He wanted to see the Academy bear fruit. He wanted Chelsea to be sustainable. Financial Fair Play regulations helped, so did the rise of the state-backed-clubs, putting us firmly in the “not-so-nouveau-riche” category, with the Arsenals, Tottenhams, Atléticos of this world. Not bad for a team on the brink of financial ruin in 2003.

He also wanted to stop the hiring and firing. He wanted consistency.

We know how that worked out.

Chelsea v AFC Bournemouth - Premier League Photo by Jordan Mansfield/Getty Images

In many respects, the era of Eden was an era of transition. Of transition from a notional global super team, to a sustainable enterprise supported by the grassroots - the best academy in England.

Which, if the reports are to be believed (I know, I know) we are now hopefully finally seeing that in action.

How often are transitions marked by stunning success though? As Eden would say: “not bad.”

The end is the end is the beginning

I didn’t want to write this piece. Because this piece means it’s over. There’s always a certain finality to writing these things. Goodbye Sweet Prince. I’m still not quite ready to believe it. Even though it was always, and I mean always, going to happen. I still haven’t gone back to Eden’s Wikipedia page — the sight of “Real Madrid Player” and seeing his Chelsea career bookended (2012-2019) is a little too much for me right now. But it’ll pass. It’s life. Change is always.

Madrid are bigger than Chelsea. Madrid are bigger than Manchester United. Madrid can [FUN] off with their entitled “we own the world and the right to the best players in the world” shtick. But Madrid have history. Madrid have 60 years of global branding. Children the world around have grown up dreaming of playing for Los Blancos since the 1950s. You just can’t compete with that. And that’s fine. We’re Chelsea, not Madrid.

And I would argue there should be no greater point of pride than seeing someone grow up right in front of our eyes, from a boy to a man, and leave for a bigger stage. The biggest stage. We’re a really successful off-Broadway venue. Madrid IS Broadway. And Broadway can chew up and spit out even the most talented. It takes a certain type to survive in that fishbowl.

Arjen Robben didn’t cut it. James Rodriguez didn’t cut it. Mesut Özil didn’t cut it. The list goes on.

I hope Eden does. And wins the Ballon d’Or. And justifies all the hype. And all the love and support.

It’s like being a proud parent and seeing your child leave for University on a scholarship after they worked so hard for seven years. Dragged themselves and everyone around them to unfathomable heights. How many World Class Players™ did Eden actually play with? Thibaut sure, N’Golo sure. Diego for a year or two, I’ll accept. Same with Cesc in that first Mourinho year. But that’s about it, eh?

The Best FIFA Football Awards - Show Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images

He’s about to join the Harlem Globetrotters of football. A team of superstars. He won’t have to carry the weight alone any more.

I’m legitimately excited for Eden. He finally gets to play with people on his level. No more glaring at an Azpilicueta mis-/over-/under-hit pass. No more eye rolls at Marcos Alonso trying to take-on his marker instead of releasing the ball. No more arm-waving at Morata or Higuaín or whatever joke of a striker he was forced to play with. It’s not lost on me that the only two League titles came with an in-form Diego Costa spearheading the attack.

He’s going to have a lot of fun playing with Luka Jović. I distinctly recall a hat-trick he scored against Newcastle back in 2013-14 when a mostly washed-up Samuel Eto’o was our striker, and some of the combinations were still incredible. Eden deserves this. He deserves to be competing for a Champions League, not just content to be there, making up numbers. A professional athlete’s prime is short. He’s in the midst of his.

I won’t watch many Madrid games next year. Because [FUN] the Galácticos. But I’ll be cheering for Eden. Because he’s one of us and he will always be. He’s earned this, he deserves this. It just breaks my damn heart.

Photo by Darren Walsh/Chelsea FC via Getty Images
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