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 at this World Cup who is younger than him. In fact, he was up against the only other captain in Qatar under the age of 30.

For many of the rest, this has looked like a tournament too far.

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. It becomes more difficult to picture their younger self once they have aged and the image of the older gentleman crystallises.

And yet, Didier Deschamps was just 29 years old when he lifted the trophy at 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 with England in 1996.

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

The ageing 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 the age of 30 and it underlines the shift. Just two captains out of 32 in their twenties? It is the fewest ever by far.

It seems that the international game has been in a kind of stasis as familiar faces cling on for their close-up. This, despite the fact that the winter World Cup means it has been the biggest gap between tournaments since the one enforced by the Second World War.

There are 24 nations out in Qatar who also qualified for Russia in 2018. The majority of the captains from four-and-a-half years ago remain. Brazil’s Marcelo has gone but the captaincy has returned to 38-year-old Thiago Silva, the man who led them in 2014.

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

Gareth Bale might still make the Wales team on merit but the sight of him and Aaron Ramsey trudging around the field has made for uncomfortable viewing even for supporters – a problem that was exacerbated when they were joined by Joe Allen.

Gareth Bale managed only 45 minutes for Wales in their defeat to England

Belgium’s own players appear to recognise their problem. Jan Vertonghen hinted that he was aware of the issues 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.

“No chance, we’re too old,” he told The Guardian. “I think our chance was 2018. We have a good team, but it is ageing. We lost some key players. We have some good new players coming, but they are not at the level other players were in 2018.”

That can be the way with a golden generation. Maybe that is what has happened with Croatia and Belgium, second and third at the last World Cup. For Wales, read Uruguay, with Godin, Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani. Still, perhaps the refresh could have come.

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 out of 128 games for Real Madrid in La Liga- to the in-form Leandro Trossard. Wout Faes is another Premier League player omitted in favour of Belgium-based Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld.

Hazard is not alone in holding on. Uruguay captain Godin, 36, has barely featured for Argentine club Velez Sarsfield. Suarez returned to South America too with Nacional. Costa Rica captain Bryan Ruiz, 37, is also back in his homeland with his first club Alajuelense.

Diego Godin is long past his best but continues to play for Uruguay

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

Advancements in sports science partially explain this increased number of ageing players. The levels of professionalism are greater than before with players utterly committed to their lifestyle. That is what allows Ronaldo to look a picture of health as he approaches 38.

Underneath, the ageing process is impossible to mask. Those fast-twitch muscle fibres are gone. Messi is great enough to capitalise on a yard of space, a momentary lapse, a split-second of time. But it is becoming more and more difficult even for him.

There is a visceral pleasure to watching Kylian Mbappe, 23, burst clear of the defence or Vinicius Junior, 22, tease and torment his full-back. It is a reminder that even in this age of celebrity brands and footballers as independent contractors, this is a young man’s game.

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

There have been 21 men to captain their team to a World Cup win. Though Italy goalkeeper Dino Zoff was 40, the majority have been in their twenties. The average age of a World Cup-winning captain is between 29 and 30 years of age. Kane? Well, he is 29 and a half.

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