With his appearance in the FA Cup final, Eden Hazard became the sixth from overseas to play 300 games for Chelsea. Gianfranco Zola was the first.
The similarities between the two do not end there. Position on the pitch, skill to beat an opponent, ability to make a difference with a piece of magic, height, entertainment value - the list goes on, even if their Chelsea careers are getting on for two decades apart.
To celebrate Hazard joining the 300-club and Zola’s earlier achievements, the official website asks both a similar set of questions about what was needed and what came to together successfully to produce the genuine Chelsea superstars they undoubtedly are.
Tomorrow we will hear from Zola, but today it is Hazard’s turn. Here are his answers…
What age were you when you first realised you could dribble the ball past someone?
When I started when I was about four, when you are young like this you just want to play and enjoy, you don’t realise you have some ability with the ball. But then a few years after, maybe seven or eight, you know people are talking a lot and you listen to your dad and all the big guys saying that is good, that is good, he has ability with the ball. So then you realise that you maybe have some skills. So about seven or eight years old.
Did you have to think much about how you did it, did it just naturally occur to you?
Of course when you are young, you don’t think, you just play. You just enjoy the moment with your friends because we are all friends, especially when you play for the village football team. You know everyone so you just want to play good times together.
Did you play against older boys?
Of course, I almost never played with my age. I was always playing one age in front of me because I played with the generation from 1989 or ‘90, I am ‘91, so for me, when you play with big players you learn more, you learn different, so yes, for sure.
Did you spend time on your own dribbling past any stationary objects?
No, the only thing I did with my brothers was play football indoors. The indoors was not so big so we needed to move objects and then you start to think I mustn’t shoot this way because you know the good things are there in the hall, so maybe you need to move the sofa. That is the only thing we did.
Did you break anything?
We broke a lot of things, you need to ask my mother!
Your mother was a football player too. She would have understood.
Yes, for sure, for sure.
Is there a reason why you grew up being able to use both feet, why you are not a one-footed player? Was there anything in particular you did?
It is because my father used to say to me, football is not just the right foot. Now, even with my kids I tell them the same, football is two feet, you need to play with your right and your left. Okay, when you are young you just want to play with the good one because you don’t care about the other one, but then when you start to think that you want to be better, you practise with the wrong one.
Is it vital to do that young?
Yes, of course, because you learn everything when you are young. It is like a language when you start young. My kids speak both languages because they start early and football is the same, when you start early to play with both feet, you can be good.
Is it true to say that good first touch is the most important thing?
Yes, for sure, definitely the first control, the first pass. For me football is all about the first touch because when you have skills but you miss the control, you can’t carry on and play your football. That is why I love to watch Juan Mata and I enjoyed playing with him because his first touch was always good, you can even pass to him with a bad pass and he will control the ball properly and just play football.
That is something Gianfranco Zola said about playing with Mark Hughes, you could give him the worst passes in the world and he would make them look good.
That is why we have in the team top players. Sometimes you give a dreadful ball and the fantastic players, they can deal with it, they can control the ball, hold the ball, turn.
You, like Zola, settled in at Chelsea very quickly. What was important to starting so well?
It is always important when you go into a new club, first you want to perform, you want to play a good game straightaway, and then when you have the confidence you start to talk with players, not just about football but the most important thing in football is just to be ready for everything. When you are ready, when you have the confidence of your team-mates and the manager, it is more easy.
For me, when I changed country the language was different but I had a chance to have with me when I came six years ago Petr Cech, he was talking French, Cesar Azpilicueta, we arrived in the same time, Michael Essien was here also so these kind of players help you because maybe sometimes you don’t understand English and then because they understand they translate for you, they speak with you, and then you start to talk, talk, talk, and then you do your own stuff.
You are also like Zola in that you get a lot of physical attention on the pitch, you get kicked a lot but you both tend to keep your cool, you don’t react, you don’t retaliate. It’s that difficult?
No, it is natural, and it is the education. My parents they always said to me if the guy kicks you, show him on the pitch, and that is my philosophy. Simple! Now you know that every game I get kicked but you know my philosophy is okay, the defender who gave me the kick, I will try to give him a nutmeg or something like that, because if I want to punch the guy I am small and I will lose [he laughs], for sure!
What about decision-making on the pitch. Do you try to see all the options around you, do you guess what is likely to happen next?
I try. I try to see everything but in football you need to think quick, you don’t have 10 seconds to think can I pass on the right or on the left because if you think too much the defender takes the ball. I like to say that I play with instinct, every time I have the ball I try to find the right solution. If the right solution is to dribble, I dribble and if the best solution is to pass the ball, I pass the ball or I move. I always play with instinct, that is it.
Players like you have a particular pressure on them in that sometimes everyone is looking to you to make the difference, particularly if a game is not going that well. That is quite a lot of pressure to deal with.
For me, I don’t like to say I don’t feel the pressure because in football you always have a bit of pressure, but you don’t think a lot about this. I am thinking when I am playing football that I try to give my best. If the team needs me, I will try to give my best. Sometimes yes, the game is not easy, they are defending well, we are attacking well but we don’t arrive to score and sometimes we are the type of player who can change the game. Zola when he was playing was this kind of player, we can change the game in one second and yes, the attention is on us but we can deal with that, no problem.
With the odd exception, generally over the years you have avoided injuries. Is there anything particularly important in preventing them?
I am lucky I am strong. You can see sometimes people in football are fragile and they have a lot of injuries but I am lucky. I had the injury in my ankle last year but most of the time I am good, I can play, why I don’t know. I take care of my body for sure, I am professional for sure but I can’t explain. We can see some players who don’t get injured even if they do everything different from me. I think it is the body, maybe you are lucky or not lucky.
Given your height you score a fair few headers. Are you happy with how many?
Yes, because I can jump, that is why. Sometimes in England the defenders they are tall and I am small and I can beat them, so it is good but it is not my football, it is just a bonus because I like to play with the ball at my feet.
Do you know much about Zola’s Chelsea career?
I don’t know lots and lots because I really started to watch Chelsea when Didier [Drogba] was here. So I don’t know a lot about Zola but I heard a lot because he is a big Chelsea legend and we are similar on the pitch. I saw some goals and I think he was a fantastic player to watch.
Between the two of you, you have won a multitude of Chelsea Player of the Year awards. Are those important to you?
No, for me that is not really important. For me it is important to enjoy on the pitch, win trophies but collective trophies. Individual trophies for me is not important. Okay it is good because it is always good to win something but in football, it is more easy to give trophies to the striker because they score goals. Sometimes we forget we have fantastic goalkeepers or defenders, so sometimes the trophy is for them also but we got the attention because we score goals. I am happy I got three times the Player of the Year but it is not important for me.
Is there any reason why you would or would not have wanted to play back in the 1990s, 20 years ago when Zola was playing?
Twenty years ago there were not the same pitches but also I think 20 years ago football was more a sport, a simple game and now it is a lot of business. You need to win, you need to sell shirts and we have a lot of things to do. I think 20 or 30 years ago was a little bit different, it was more just thinking about the 90 minutes on the pitch.
- Tomorrow we hear Gianfranco Zola’s answers…