News of the ballboy incident at Swansea was met with disbelief in France, where the midfielder was rarely booked at Lille
There was disbelief in France as news broke from the Liberty Stadium, and that was even before any mention of ballboys, time-wasting or rushes of blood had filtered through. The very fact that Eden Hazard had been sent off was implausible given that, back in Ligue 1, they remember the Belgian as a scintillating talent with a lightning burst of pace who carried all before him while at Lille and, as a result, was the most fouled player in French football. He has traditionally been on the receiving end of indiscipline not instigated it.
This is a 22-year-old with no on-field "previous". The most cautions he had accrued in a domestic season across the Channel was three and it is hardly as if the Premier League has transformed him. Prior to events in the 78th minute in Swansea he had been booked only once for Chelsea, in stoppage time at Carrow Road on Boxing Day for a foul on Russell Martin as Chelsea attempted to close out the game. His is, in short, an exemplary record for a player who has drawn his fair share of desperate fouls from flustered opponents over the years. He is simply not a volatile performer prone to losing his rag, which made his reaction in South Wales seem out of character. It was exceptional and anything but evidence of a simmering temper.
All of which rather tallies with the testimonies, largely expressed on Twitter, offered up by fellow professionals from Michael Owen to Joey Barton to Rio Ferdinand, suggesting they can empathise with the sight of Hazard's patience snapping when Charlie Morgan flopped on to the ball and refused to let Chelsea play. The Belgian should, of course, have protested to the referee, Chris Foy, who would presumably have barked instructions to the teenager to surrender the ball to the City goalkeeper, Gerhard Tremmel, and resume the game. The official might even have suggested adding on some extra time at the end, given the 17-year-old's antics. But the desperate nature of Chelsea's game of catch-up rather clouded Hazard's mind. "Of course he was upset the ballboy was not throwing the ball back to him quicker," said Tremmel. "But you can't react like that. That was unprofessional."
The Belgian acknowledged as much immediately afterwards with his apology but, even if all parties should shudder in embarrassment in the cold light of day, he remains convinced he had made contact solely with the ball. All that rolling around and clutching of ribs was playacting. The hope is that this will not leave an indelible mark on Hazard's image: his sponsors are apparently unconcerned, believing the furore will blow over quickly enough.
The Belgian has enjoyed some dazzling displays in his first season in English football and endured some lulls too, not least in the onset of winter when his form fizzled out with that of the side. But this is his first taste of life outside the French league and, on the basis that leeway has to be given for adjustment even to players who cost £32m, it has been promising.
His problem, perhaps, is that he arrived with a lofty reputation. In Belgium there has been occasional criticism that he has been unable to illuminate the national team as he did with Lille, where he was established as the creative hub around which the side revolved. People remember the footage of him eating a hamburger outside the stadium having been substituted at half-time during a Euro 2012 qualifier and might raise their eyes rather more than the French to hear controversy has flared up again. Yet with Lille he only excelled: Hazard was Ligue 1's young player of the season twice and player of the season twice and was the youngest ever to win that second accolade.
Last season's exploits in particular, when he plundered goals at will while also supplying a conveyor belt of assists, caught the eye of the Premier League's elite as well as Real Madrid. When Zinedine Zidane suggests he would "sign him with my eyes close" it is an indication of natural talent. He enjoyed the attention the auction for his services generated, dropping tantalising hints on his own Twitter account which culminated in the definitive "I'm signing for the Champions League winners".
He is still learning and, given his progress to date, there will surely be further improvement in the years ahead. He is certainly used to the pressure. "People expect so much from Eden," reflected his Belgium team-mate, the Aston Villa forward Christian Benteke. "He will forever have to do more than the others but he relishes the challenge. Eden dares to try things and is not afraid to face up to his responsibilities." The hope is that the teachers' son will be aware of those even more acutely in the wake of his brush with a ballboy.