Observing how athletes evolve is one of the reasons why sport makes for such compelling viewing. Charting their progress, how they develop their game or adjust to the circumstances in which they find themselves, is what maintains our interest.


It’s partly the promise of fulfilling potential and after that the exceeding of expectation that keeps us coming back, but then, when all the titles have been won and all the records broken, our attention is retained by their capacity to continue surprising us.


Eden Hazard, the 21-year-old Lille star, understands this completely.


“For me football is about conveying the pleasure that I feel when I am on the pitch,” he said. “If at the end of the game I don’t hear applause it means that I haven’t managed to do that and I’m upset with myself about it.”


It’s a noble sentiment: a footballer recognizing that while he is contractually obliged to play and not necessarily entertain, he does not see either as mutually exclusive. Anyway, Hazard didn’t seem too bothered last weekend when he was politely informed after Lille’s 2-1 defeat to Lyon that Sir Alex Ferguson had been at the Stade de Gerland.


Spotted yawning in the stands, the implication was that the Manchester United manager had been bored. “Maybe he was tired,” Hazard countered. There was an assurance to his response, even if, in the past, he has admitted that he’d be “intimidated” if he were ever to come face-to-face with Ferguson because he is a “monument” in the game.


Hazard had flickered without ever really catching fire throughout the match. But deep down, he probably knew that Ferguson wouldn’t have gone to the trouble of making the trip the night before a match against West Bromwich Albion if United’s interest wasn’t serious and their opinion of his talent already well-formed.


According to RMC, Ferguson was there to watch Lille right-back Mathieu Debuchy, but it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that he was also keeping tabs on Hazard. After all, the scouting reports that will have inevitably been landing on his desk for the last couple of years with the Lille No 10’s name on them warrant following up in person.


Asked to comment further on Ferguson’s presence, Hazard told La Voix du Nord the following day: “Of course [United interest me]. This is a club that excites everyone. For now my focus is on Lille. But yes, it’s a pleasure to be watched by one of the best coaches in the world, if not the best.”


In one fell swoop, it seems, United have jumped to the head of a long and prestigious queue for Hazard’s signature. Tottenham manager Harry Redknapp acknowledged as much in a lengthy interview with L’Équipe.


“Our owner is ready to make an extraordinary investment for a talent like Hazard,” he said. “I have seen him several times, in Marseille recently and also in the French Cup final last year. But I know that United are following him closely. City, too. It’ll be difficult to sign him. But I love him.”


Listening to Redknapp talk about Hazard is a revealing exercise. On the one hand he is convinced that the player can make the difference between Tottenham qualifying for the Champions League on an intermittent and a consistent basis. On the other, his repeated expression of interest perhaps gives an indication that this is the price he is charging Spurs to turn down a job offer from England and stay at White Hart Lane.


Redknapp has since said: “It is ambitious but if we want to be a top-four club we have to do that. They’re all doing it. If you want to compete you have to buy top players. We’ve not paid massive transfer fees in the past because we’ve been OK. But you have to keep pushing on and I think the club would do it if we came up with the right targets. Daniel [Levy] would pay the money, he is ambitious.”


Despite signing a new contract last year until 2015 it’s thought that within the small print of Hazard’s deal there is a buy-out clause worth £33m. He has expressed his belief that it is time to move on. After winning the Ligue 1 Young Player of the Year award in consecutive years, he then won the senior prize on the back of last season’s performances, which inspired Lille to their first league and cup double in 65 years.


Hazard, quite justifiably, feels he has achieved everything he realistically can in France. That feeling of accomplishment would appear to rule out the probable highest bidder from any auction to sign him: league leaders Paris Saint-Germain.


Hazard has previously told L’Équipe that “I wouldn’t like to strengthen one of Lille’s competitors.” He later reiterated to La Gazzetta dello Sport that “in any case I will not stay in France. It’d be useless,” instead revealing a preference for the Premier League before intimating that he might think twice about joining Manchester City because there’d be no guarantee of a starting place week-in week-out. He’s smart enough to acknowledge, however, that wherever he goes, competition is bound to be high.


Still, Hazard can afford to be picky simply because he reportedly has the choice of so many clubs. It’s not too hard to discover why. Hazard keeps getting better and better.


While Lille are third in Ligue 1 this season and look unlikely to retain their title, if it weren’t for their No 10, they’d probably be that little bit further off the pace. The spine of their title-winning team has gone. Adil Rami, Yohan Cabaye and Gervinho left in the summer. Moussa Sow was sold in the winter. More has been demanded of Hazard. He’s had to compensate for a lot and has done so.


What has been impressive about Hazard in this current campaign isn’t so much his flicks and tricks or the explosiveness he has shown on the left-hand side. Rather it’s the way he has grasped the nettle, taking over games not out of selfishness but because of a greater sense of responsibility. He hasn’t at all buckled under the extra weight on his shoulders.


“It’s true, Eden has become even more important than he was,” Lille coach Rudi Garcia explained. “But it’s also quite logical. He is more experienced and mature.”


Hazard has been Lille’s top scorer and best passer this season. He has been directly involved in 22 of their 50 goals in Ligue 1. That’s 44% of the total. Not bad considering many thought Lille would struggle in the absence of Cabaye, their chief schemer and penalty-taker, a role Hazard has appropriated for himself, and of course the exits of Gervinho and Sow, who scored 40 goals between them last season.


It’s this ability to ‘step up’ that has added to the conviction among prospective buyers that he really is a special player for whose services it is worth breaking the bank.


Nothing is ever predestined, although with hindsight Hazard’s future as a footballer now looks inevitable given both his father and mother played professionally and his younger brothers, Thorgan and Kylian, are on the books at Lens and Lille. There’s a sense he was born to do it and that a career at the very highest level awaits him.


Yet Hazard knows how fickle this game can be. One day, you can be the subject of praise from a personal idol like Zinédine Zidane, who said last year that he’d sign Hazard with his eyes closed. The next, you can be forgotten.


Asked where he sees himself in 10 years’ time, Hazard told L’Équipe: “I don’t know. It’s still far away. I hope at one of the best clubs in the world. I could also be at Standard Liége…”


As an Anderlecht fan, that was the Belgium international’s tongue-in-cheek way of saying he’d have failed. Let’s hope for his sake that it doesn’t get to that point.  But with his ability, one strongly doubts it will.


This article first appeared on ESPN.com