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Commentary May 20, 2016

Eden Hazard showed his kid no mercy: Can soccer parents learn from him?

You may have seen the viral video of Chelsea FC star Eden Hazard that’s making the rounds this week.

The Belgian international is known as one of the most skilful dribblers in world soccer, with quick feet and lateral acceleration that reportedly cost Chelsea some $46 million when he was transferred from French club Lille four years ago.

After the English Premier League side’s last match of the 2015/16 season, videos captured Hazard playing with his 3-year-old son Leo on the pitch at their home stadium, Stamford Bridge, as captain John Terry gave a speech to the crowd. His kid is eager to play with dad, and Hazard responds by not only tormenting his kid with cuts, feints and dragbacks, but even goes so far as to slyly trip the little one when he runs after the ball.

Unsurprisingly, most media coverage, while light-hearted, has taken a “poor kid, mean dad” tone, showing sympathy for the hapless but enthusiastic child. ESPNFC called it “mercilessly humiliating.” Fox’s Rachel Bonnetta called Hazard “a big old meanie-pants,” adding, “I am in no position to tell you how to coach your son, but…maybe don’t do it that way!”

Gary Kleiban of the respected Southern California coaching company 3Four3, however, took a very different tack:

This got us thinking here at SoccerWire. We hear a lot about parents in our work, from the “helicopter” variety to the new “lawnmower” phenomenon to the old-fashioned “sideline psychos.” So just what might the typical North American soccer parent think of an elite professional like Hazard taking a no-coddling approach to his wee lad’s earliest exposure to the beautiful game?

Is the Belgian laying the groundwork for a future great, or just crushing his son’s spirit? Could it be a bit of both?

It’s not like he’s the only one to show his kid tough love. One of the most memorable stories I’ve ever heard about any pro coach or player comes from the childhood of Peter Nowak, a distinguished international midfielder turned hard-charging coach, as Nowak himself related to the Washington Post‘s Steve Goff:

Peter Nowak was 9 when his father first took him to a clearing in the woods near their home in central Poland.

The choppy ground was their soccer pitch, trees stood as goal posts. The game was one on one, the aspiring son against the accomplished father.

“He told me we’re not going to stop until you beat me,” Peter Nowak recalled recently. “I beat him for the first time when I was 22 years old. Every Sunday, every week, year after year, he embarrassed me in front of my friends, in front of my girlfriends, in front of my neighbors. I was upset, I was crying, but it made me stronger.

“It was frustrating — but that’s why I am so hungry for winning.”

Nowak led D.C. United to an unlikely MLS Cup championship in his first year as a head coach, but crossed the line in his last pro gig, overworking Philadelphia Union players, dismissing concussions as signs of weakness and denying them water during training in a series of incidents that spawned years of litigation, and eventually helped get him fired. Yet his successes as a player, if nothing else, suggest that his dad may have had a point.

Can the typical U.S. youth soccer experience create the kind of crucible that makes world-class players? That’s an open and often highly contentius question. But every parent should ask themselves if their kid could benefit from getting Hazarded now and then.

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