This winter’s World Cup may well provide the perfect backdrop for a host of players to wave a graceful goodbye to the greatest tournament of them all.
One final hurrah, and one final glistening trophy.
That tantalising prospect is what is at stake in Qatar, and the game’s greatest and oldest players will want to grab it with both hands to taste glory once again.
Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo will likely have one final chance to lift the coveted trophy that has evaded them, while other iconic names will bow out, too.
With superstars from footballing institutions like Germany, France, Spain, Brazil, Belgium and many others all competing, here are the 10 players who may step away.
The World Cup later this year may be the final chance at the trophy for a host of superstars
France won the tournament in 2018, and their hopes have been bolstered by Karim Benzema
CRISTIANO RONALDO (PORTUGAL)
The evergreen Cristiano Ronaldo has insisted that he will keep playing as long as he feels he remains in shape, saying: ‘I’m the one in charge [of my career], full stop.
‘A lot of people ask this question. I’m the one who will decide my future. If I feel like playing more, I play and if I don’t feel like playing, I don’t play.’
If anyone could light up a World Cup aged 41, it would be Ronaldo. That is precisely the age he would be at the 2026 edition, but even that may be a bridge too far.
Before Ronaldo made his international debut for Portugal in 2004, his country had only qualified for six major tournaments. With him, they have reached 10 in a row.
That includes five World Cups and five European Championships – and, while defying his doubters and advancing age at every turn, has scored 117 goals in 189 matches.
Cristiano Ronaldo is unlikely to light up 2026 at the age of 41, so will want success this winter
ROBERT LEWANDOWSKI (POLAND)
Out of anyone above the age of 30, Robert Lewandowski appears the likeliest to play on until the 2026 World Cup. Then, he will be 37, but he is in peak physical shape.
Just like Ronaldo, Lewandowski has stayed at the top of his game and looked after himself, meaning he is more than capable of turning out for Poland into the future.
He is also his country’s undisputed talisman. The frontman is their captain, their leading appearance maker and, more importantly, their all-time top scorer.
Surprisingly, he has never netted at the World Cup, and will want to put that right.
Qualifying for the tournament in four years time will be no mean feat but first, Lewandowski will have his sights set firmly on leading Poland to success this winter.
Robert Lewandowski has never scored at the World Cup, and will want to put that record right
THIAGO SILVA (BRAZIL)
Brazil last won the World Cup in 2002, but there is a real buzz and optimism about them this year. Thiago Silva, their formidable centre back, will be crucial to this.
He will be 38 by the time Qatar rolls around, but it is likely he will once again take up his usual spot in his side’s backline. His Rolls Royce-like nature will see to that.
Silva has been keen to insist he is taking his career one season at a time, saying: ‘We know that our fitness is not the same of two, three years ago. The time to recover between matches changes a lot. But I will continue to prepare to reach my dreams.
‘The World Cup is still pending… it is impossible not to think of the World Cup.’
The experienced defender is also keen to play into his 40s, and it would be no surprise if he surpasses the milestone and adds to his 107 international caps to date.
Thiago Silva will be crucial to Brazil’s hopes of finally claiming a first World Cup since 2002
LIONEL MESSI (ARGENTINA)
It took a while but Lionel Messi finally won his first piece of silverware with Argentina last summer at the Copa America. The World Cup in may be his second, and last.
They endured close shaves in Brazil in 2014 but went on to crash out in Russia four years ago in calamitous fashion. Since then, they have found the perfect balance.
At the heart of it all, 35-year-old Messi has flourished, and he even played a role in all of his country’s Copa America goals. Now, can we repeat those heroics in Qatar?
‘I don’t know what I will do after the World Cup. I am thinking about what is coming,’ he admitted. ‘After Qatar, I will have to reassess many things.’
There lies a big question mark over what is in store for him after the winter period, then, but some have predicted he will choose to gracefully hang up his boots.
Lionel Messi has never won the showpiece, and may well hang up his boots after Qatar
LUIS SUAREZ (URUGUAY)
Luis Suarez is one of the best strikers of his generation, and has helped to transform Uruguay into a formidable force in international football over his storied career.
Now aged 35, it is likely that the World Cup in Qatar will be his last. As determined as ever, the veteran frontman will want to bow out on the big stage with a bang.
With him leading the line, Uruguay have reached a semi-final, quarter-final and a spot in the last 16, bettering Argentina and matching the feats of giants Brazil.
They have also clinched the Copa America, and Suarez will be targeting another piece of silverware to add to his collection, although that is an unlikely dream.
He has made 132 appearances so far, and has scored an impressive 68 goals.
Luis Suarez has fired Uruguay to victory countless times, and will be keen to impress again
LUKA MODRIC (CROATIA)
There were reports he would call time on his international career, but Luka Modric continues to play on for Croatia, dropping jaws and dazzling fans wherever he goes.
He was made to endure heartbreak at the 2018 World Cup after his country lost to France in a thrilling final, and was at the heart of their efforts in the tournament.
Modric was named the Player of the Tournament and this year, will aim to go one better. That has become even more crucial with this edition likely to be his last.
The maestro is 36 and, despite his metronomic nature, will eventually slow down.
But his ability remains as good as ever, just look at his performances for Real Madrid in the Champions League. A World Cup medal would cap off his stunning twilight.
Luka Modric is no stranger to dropping jaws and he will now want to go one better than 2018
THOMAS MULLER (GERMANY)
He may have been dropped from the international fold by Joachim Low in 2019, but Thomas Muller returned with a vengeance and is relishing another World Cup shot.
His absence, which came alongside Mats Hummels and Jerome Boateng also being frozen out, raised eyebrows, with Muller one of the finest players ever for Germany.
Low’s successor, Hansi Flick, would not make the same mistake. Muller was recalled, and he immediately seized back his prominent role in the set-up for Die Mannschaft.
Speaking after Flick took charge, the mercurial forward said he had no intention of hanging up his boots for his country, and he will therefore play on in Qatar.
The next tournament, when Muller will be 36, may be a step too far, though, so he will want success this year.
Thomas Muller endured heartbreak at the last World Cup, but is set to star for Germany again
KARIM BENZEMA (FRANCE)
Anyone claiming that Karim Benzema has peaked at the age of 34 may have a point.
This season, he has propelled Real Madrid to the Champions League final almost single-handedly, and ripped apart Paris Saint-Germain with a stunning hat-trick.
There is a feeling that he is making up for the time he lost after his France exile and, having missed out on the 2018 World Cup, he will want to impress this winter.
France, of course, are the reigning champions. A triumph for them would make them the first side to win back-to-back tournaments since Brazil back in 1962.
Benzema will be crucial in their bid to do just that, and the striker has bullishly said that putting Les Blues as the favourites once again this year is ‘obligatory’.
Benzema may well have peaked at 34, and he will be key to Les Blues’ shot at world domination
EDINSON CAVANI (URUGUAY)
Intriguingly, Edinson Cavani grew up just streets away from compatriot Luis Suarez.
For many years, those two formed the perfect partnership for Uruguay, although their advancing ages and Cavani’s patchy injury record may well tear them apart.
Even with their veterans playing, they were only able to haul themselves over the line in World Cup qualification, and they will need to improve across the board in Qatar.
Cavani, now 35-years-old, has attracted many doubters as a result of his time at Manchester United fizzing out, but his record of 54 goals in 130 appearances to date speaks for itself.
He may not be the poacher of old, but his goals will be crucial to his country again.
Edinson Cavani, alongside Suarez, has led the line for his country for years, but is fizzing out
MANUEL NEUER (GERMANY)
The old guard are gradually beginning to fade out for Germany, and Manuel Neuer can be counted among them. He looks set to walk away after this World Cup.
He would be 40 at the next tournament and, although goalkeepers typically hit their prime in their mid to late 30s, competing at that level would become harder.
Neuer has been exemplary for his country over the years, and he deserves to bow out with dignity. Clinching the World Cup for one final time would be a fairytale end.
Last time out, it all went horribly wrong for Die Mannschaft, however. They were dumped out in the group stage, and Neuer was made to look painfully average.
Vengeance may be on his mind this time, then. There is no disputing that he is one of the sport’s best ever shot stoppers, and he will want to prove that to the world again.
Manuel Neuer won the World Cup in 2014, but will be 40 by the time the next edition is held