Euro 2016: Can Belgium's Hazard emulate Maradona?
Hazard can create history by taking Belgium to its first semi-final since that harrowing day against Argentina 30 years ago.Ali Khaled June 30, 2016
Jean-Marie Pfaff, Eric Gerets, Enzo Scifo and the rest of the Belgian team could barely comprehend what had just happened.
Diego Maradona had just laid to waste their defence to score one of the greatest international goals of all time. It was his second of the 1986 World Cup semi-final, and sealed a 2-0 to take Argentina to the final against West Germany.
The match arguably represented the height of Maradona’s genius, in the middle of the finest week of his career. Just three days earlier he had scored both football’s most fabled goal and it’s most notorious one, in the 2-1 quarter-final win over England.
Then, four days after destroying Belgium, Maradona’s threaded pass for Jorge Burrachaga’s late winner against the Germans saw him lifting the World Cup at the Aztec Stadium in Mexico City.
No player since has come close to dominating a tournament in such a brutally blatant manner.
Exactly 30 years to the day from Maradona’s semi-final destruction of Belgium, an outworldly performance by Eden Hazard for the modern day Red Devils had television pundits and journalists rushing to compare him to the Argentinian master.
In the devastating 4-0 Euro 2016 round of 16 win over Hungary this last week, Hazard scored one goal, assisted another, created four chances, attempted 10 dribbles, and had a pass accuracy of 90 percent. Mere statistics don’t do justice to his majesty on the night.
In this age of immediacy and knee jerk reactions, the world’s media predictably swooned, Hazard’s sins forgiven after this Diego-like display. At times he was mesmerizing, drifting past shell-shocked defenders like a bushy-haired Argentine genius cutting through an English defence. Having set up a goal for substitute Michy Batshuayi by essentially exchanging passes with himself, he topped even that with a majestic icing-on-cake winner minutes later. It was easy to get carried away, but a sense of perspective is needed.
Hazard is obviously no Maradona. He’s no Leo Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo either. He’s not even Scifo, yet. And with the brilliant, more consistent Kevin De Bruyne alongside him, he’s not always the best player in this Belgium team either.
Yet his performance against Hungary was reminder of just how exceptional he can be when in the right mood.
Now Hazard has the chance of emulating Maradona; leading his country all the way to glory by putting on the best tournament performance by an individual since that summer of 86. His form so far at Euro 2016 has echoed that of his team. Poor against Italy, excellent against Ireland, patchy against Sweden and sensational in the evisceration of Hungary.
On the back of a miserable season with Chelsea, this seemingly new, focused Hazard would have surprised many, including you’d imagine Jose Mourinho. Yet there was hint of what was to come near the end of the last campaign, when he ran Liverpool ragged – and scored a superb individual goal – in a 1-1 draw at Anfield. Perhaps he’d been saving himself for Euro 2016 all along.
Belgium, no longer seen as dark horses but as genuine contenders in their own right, are in the more favourable half of the draw. Germany, Italy, France and, let's not forget, Iceland cannot be met before the final.
First for Hazard and Belgium is Friday's quarterfinal against Wales, an English Premier League-flavoured clash with plenty of subplots.
As for his talismanic counterpart, Welsh captain Gareth Bale has also shone at Euro 2016, and he too will have designs on taking his country all the way to the final. The Guardian newspaper even called it the “Garadona Possibility”.
Hazard has also been linked with a move to Real Madrid where he would be Bale's teammate and potential rival for a first team place. A repeat of his last performance would send speculation into overdrive.
The winners would find themselves one match away from a final in Paris on July 10, with either Poland or Portugal, neither of which have impressed in France, standing in their way. It’s hard to imagine either Belgium or Wales could ask for more at this advanced stage of the competition
For Belgium, it’s a chance to fulfil the promise of this golden generation. A chance of a first semi-final since that harrowing day against Argentina 30 years ago. And a chance for Hazard to inflict on others what Maradona inflicted on his nation all those years ago.