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 United States midfielder Tyler Adams before kick-off, he was up against the only captain younger than himself at this World Cup. In fact, he was up against the only captain in Qatar under the age of 30.

For the rest of us, it’s like a tournament.

It is easy to assume that it has always been this way. In the mind’s eye, those legends of yesteryear appear larger than life. As they get older it becomes more difficult to portray their youth, and the image of the older gentleman becomes crystallized.

Yet Didier Deschamps was only 29 when he lifted the trophy in France ’98. Carlos Alberto was just a puppy at the age of 25 when he led Brazil to era-defining glory in 1970. Bobby Moore was the same age when he achieved the feat with England in 1996.

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

The aging icon of the World Cup may seem as old as the tournament itself, but it underlines the change as 17 of the 24 captains in 1982 were under the age of 30. Only two out of 32 captains in their twenties? Lowest ever.

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The international game seems to be at a standstill as familiar faces stick around for their close-ups. This, the Winter World Cup means the biggest gap between tournaments since the Second World War.

Qatar is among the 24 countries that have qualified for Russia in 2018. Most of the captains from four and a half years ago remain. Brazil’s Marcelo is gone, but 38-year-old Thiago Silva, who led them in 2014, is back as captain.

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

Gareth Bale may still have merit in the Wales squad, but the sight of him and Aaron Ramsey hanging around on the pitch made even the supporters uneasy – a problem exacerbated when Joe Allen joined them.

Gareth Bale
Gareth Bale managed just 45 minutes for Wales in the defeat against England

Belgium’s own players seem to have recognized their problem. Jan Vertonghen has hinted that he is aware of the problems but prefers to keep them to the dressing room. Too late for that. Kevin De Bruyne made his feelings clear before the World Cup.

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“No chance, we’re too old,” he said Guardian. “I think 2018 is our chance. We have a good team, but it’s getting old. We’ve lost some key players. We’ve got some good new players coming in, but they’re not at the level that other players were in 2018.”

That will be the way of a golden generation. Maybe that’s what happened to Croatia and Belgium, who finished second and third at the last World Cup. For Wales, read Uruguay with Godin, Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani. And yet, perhaps, renewal would come.

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

For example, Belgium chose Hazard – a player who has started 29 of 128 matches for Real Madrid in La Liga – over the in-form Leandro Trossard. Vout Fess is another Premier League player who has been left out in favor of Belgium-based Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld.

Hazard isn’t the only one holding back. Uruguay captain Godin, 36, barely played at Argentine club Velez Sarsfield. Suarez also returned to South America with Nacional. Costa Rica captain Brian Ruiz, 37, also returned to his homeland with his first club Alajuelas.

Diego Godin responded after seeing his header cannon off the post
Diego Godin is at his best but continues to play for Uruguay

Bale has started just two of 18 games since moving to Los Angeles. Messi may join him in Major League Soccer. Ronaldo is now without a club. The next World Cup is closer than the previous tournament, but few of these are meant to be there.

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Advances in sports science partly explain this growing number of older players. The level of professionalism is higher than ever as the players are fully committed to their lifestyle. That allows Ronaldo to look a picture of health as he approaches 38.

Underneath, the aging process is impossible to hide. Those fast-twitch muscle fibers are gone. Messi is good at capitalizing on a yard of space, a momentary loss and a split in time. But even he is finding it increasingly difficult.

There is a visceral joy in watching Kylian Mbappe, 23, burst out of defence, or Vinicius Junior, 22, tease and torment his full-backs. A reminder that it’s still a young man’s game in this day and age of celebrity brands and footballers standing as independent contractors.

Sports can be brutal. 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. For all the smoke and mirrors in Qatar, the truth always comes out on the pitch.

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


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