World Cup’s ageing icons: From Gareth Bale to Eden Hazard, this has looked a tournament too far for many stars | Football News

When Harry Kane went to shake hands with US midfielder Tyler Adams before kick-off, he was up against the only captain at this World Cup who is younger than him. In fact, he faced the only other Qatari captain under 30 years of age.

For many of the others, this has felt like a tournament too far.

It is easy to assume that it has always been this way. In the mind’s eye, these legends of yesteryear seem larger than life. It becomes harder to imagine their younger selves once they get older and the image of the old man crystallizes.

And yet, Didier Deschamps was just 29 when he lifted the trophy in France ’98. Carlos Alberto was a mere pup at 25 when he captained Brazil to era-defining glory in 1970. Bobby Moore was the same age when he achieved the feat for England in 1996.

Diego Maradona? He was also 25 years old. As for Pelé, he never captained his country to a World Cup, but then never played until he was in his thirties, despite intense pressure from the Brazilian government to reverse his international retirement in 1974.

The aging icon at the World Cup may seem like a trope as old as the tournament itself, but consider that 17 of the 24 captains in 1982 were under 30 and that underlines the shift. Only two captains of 32 in their twenties? It is the least, by far.

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The international game seems to have been in something of a stasis as familiar faces cling to its foreground. This, despite the fact that the winter World Cup means it has been the biggest gap between tournaments since the Second World War.

There are 24 nations in Qatar who also qualified for Russia 2018. Most of the captains from four and a half years ago are still there. Brazilian Marcelo has departed, but the captaincy is back in 38-year-old Thiago Silva, the man who led them in 2014.

The armband has stayed not only with Kane but with Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi; with Eden Hazard, Luka Modric and Diego Godin; with Simon Kjaer, Robert Lewandowski and several others. Some of these players are still close to their prime. Many are not.

Gareth Bale could still be in the Wales squad on merit, but the sight of him and Aaron Ramsey walking the pitch has made for uncomfortable viewing even for supporters, a problem that is compounded when Joe Allen joined them.

Gareth Bale
Gareth Bale managed just 45 minutes for Wales in their defeat by England

Belgium’s own players seem to recognize their problem. Jan Vertonghen hinted that he was aware of the problems but wanted to keep them within the dressing room. Too late for that. Kevin De Bruyne had made his feelings clear even before the World Cup.

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“No way, we’re too old,” he said the guardian. “I think our opportunity was in 2018. We have a good team, but it’s getting old. We lost some key players. We have good new players, but they’re not at the level of other players in 2018.”

This may be the way with a golden generation. Perhaps this is what has happened with Croatia and Belgium, second and third in the last World Cup. For Wales, read Uruguay, with Godin, Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani. Still, maybe the soda could have arrived.

Belgium's Eden Hazard reacts during the World Cup Group F match against Morocco at the Al Thumama Stadium in Doha
Eden Hazard has looked a shadow of his former self for Belgium in Qatar

Belgium, for example, preferred Hazard – a player who has started 29 of Real Madrid’s 128 La Liga games – to the in-form Leandro Trossard. Wout Faes is another Premier League player omitted in favor of Belgium-based Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld.

Hazard isn’t the only one holding out. Uruguay captain Godín, 36, has barely played for Argentine club Vélez Sarsfield. Suárez also returned to South America with Nacional. Costa Rica captain Bryan Ruiz, 37, has also returned to his homeland with his first club Alajuelense.

Diego Godin reacts after seeing his header hit the post
Diego Godín has passed his prime, but continues to play for Uruguay

Bale has started two of 18 games since his move to Los Angeles. Messi could join him in Major League Soccer. Ronaldo is now without a club. The next World Cup is closer than ever to the previous tournament, but few of them intend to be there.

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Advances in sports science partially explain this increase in the number of aging players. The levels of professionalism are greater than before with players fully committed to their lifestyle. This is what allows Ronaldo to have an image of health as he approaches the age of 38.

Underneath, the aging process is impossible to mask. These fast-twitch muscle fibers are gone. Messi is big enough to take advantage of a yard of space, a momentary lapse, a split second of time. But it’s getting harder and harder even for him.

There is a visceral pleasure in watching 23-year-old Kylian Mbappe burst out of defense or 22-year-old Vinicius Junior tease and torment his full-back. It’s a reminder that even in this age of big-name brands and footballers as independent contractors, this is a young man’s game.

Sports can be cruel. There is no hiding place. If Usain Bolt was a movie star, he would still be a box office hit. If Roger Federer were a rock star, he’d still be selling out stadiums. Despite all the smoke and mirrors in Qatar, the truth will always be on the pitch.

There have been 21 men to captain their team to win a World Cup. Although Italian goalkeeper Dino Zoff was 40, most are in their twenties. The average age of a World Cup winning captain is between 29 and 30 years. Kane? Well, he’s 29 and a half years old.


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