A Euro 2016 quarterfinal against Wales just across the border in Lille will almost feel like a home game for Belgium and a homecoming for captain Eden Hazard.
The 25-year-old was Belgium’s man-of-the-match in their 4-0 demolition of Hungary in the last 16, scoring one superb goal and setting up another. His coach Marc Wilmots said Hazard had been driven on by the prospect of going back to Lille, barely 15 kilometres (10 miles) from the Belgian border.
“If we had a 150 000 (capacity stadium) we could fill it. It’s very near the border and Eden Hazard especially wanted to play in Lille, that’s why he played so well,” said Wilmots.
For Hazard, it will be a return to the city where his career as a player took off. Naija and Bet
Hazard, from the small town of Braine-le-Comte in the French-speaking Wallonia region of Belgium, joined the Lille academy an hour’s drive away as a 14-year-old in 2005 and has never looked back.
“It’s not easy to leave your family, your parents, and go to another country, even if it was France so it wasn’t far from home,” Hazard said in an interview with beIN Sports.
“It is where, you could say, I learnt about life because I arrived when I was 14. It is where I was taught to respect others and it is where I played my first match.
“Everything went brilliantly from my first steps at Lille until my departure for Chelsea. Everything was perfect.”
Hazard made his Lille senior debut as a 16-year-old in November 2007. He became the star player in a side that made history by winning the French league and cup double in 2011, their first major trophies in 56 years.
The little playmaker was named France’s player of the year that season and again in the following campaign before he moved to Chelsea in 2012.
His final game for Lille, in a side also containing France’s Euro 2016 star Dimitri Payet, saw him score a hat-trick in a 4-1 win against Nancy in May 2012.
That was Lille’s last game at their old stadium before a move to the 50 000-seat Stade Pierre-Mauroy where Belgium and Wales will clash on Friday. It will be Hazard’s first game at the new ground.
He may have been just 21 when he left Lille but – unlike international colleague Divock Origi, whose departure for Liverpool was more premature – he will be remembered as one of their greatest players and he has always said he would be happy to return eventually.
“If one day I have to come back to France, I have always said it will be to Lille. We’ll see. Maybe I will come back one day,” Hazard said last year.
For now he is a standout player in a Belgian side that has found form since beginning Euro 2016 with a 2-0 defeat to Italy.
Hazard, who finished the Premier League season strongly with Chelsea, claimed assists for Romelu Lukaku in the 3-0 win against the Republic of Ireland and for Radja Nainggolan in the 1-0 defeat of Sweden before his magnificent performance against Hungary.
“For me it’s brilliant…in France where it all began,” Hazard told beIN Sports as he reflected on being back on familiar territory.
“If little Belgium can win in France, the big country, it would be magnificent.”
And, with a semifinal against Poland or Portugal the prize for the winner of Friday’s game, Hazard feels this could be the year for a highly talented group of players that reached the World Cup quarterfinals in 2014.
“We have the experience of playing the World Cup two years ago. We’ve been playing together for two or three years and we know one another perfectly so if we have to win something we need to do it now,” he added.