Like grains of sand slipping through gaps in a clenched fist, a generation of great footballers are fast approaching swansongs to remarkable careers, while millions of fans cling desperately to troves filled to the brim with delightful memories, attempting to delay the inevitability of the curtains closing on a period graced by distinguished talents who will be spoken of for decades.
Between the summers of 2012 and 2014, we bid tearful yet fond farewells to the likes of Andriy Shevchenko (2012), Filippo Inzaghi (2012), Jamie Carragher (2013), Paul Scholes (2013), David Beckham (2013), Alessandro Nesta (2013), Gennaro Gattuso (2013), Javier Zanetti (2014), Thierry Henry (2014), Carles Puyol (2014), Ryan Giggs (2014), Clarence Seedorf (2014) and Rivaldo (2014). These players had come to define their respective club and international sides with their incredible talents, awe-inspiring feats of individual brilliance and perseverance, and performances of astonishing consistency stretched across several hundred games. The rich tapestries immortalizing the modern histories of storied European clubs like Manchester United, AC Milan, Inter Milan, and Barcelona would be incomplete without these players’ contributions, which have permanently woven their legacies into the annals of time. Their careers that shall remain inextricably linked with their legions of fans’ formative memories of watching the game, and their places in history are assured.
While legends are set in stone, careers are all too prone to the ravages of time, and the last weeks have been painful reminders that even the greatest players, whose talents seemed impervious to the depredations of age despite their decades-long domination of the spotlight, must eventually call time on their careers at the highest level, and move on to pastures new. These four midfielders played for some of Europe’s biggest clubs, with 3,112 senior club appearances, 468 international appearances, 17 domestic top-flight league titles, eight UEFA Champions League victories and three second-place finishes, two FIFA World Cups, two FIFA European Championships, and over 100 individual awards between them, can rightly be considered four of their generation’s greatest and most influential midfielders. I am speaking, of course, of Barcelona legend Xavi Hernandez, Italian maestro Andrea Pirlo, Chelsea’s all-time top goal-scorer Frank Lampard, and the greatest player ever to don a Liverpool jersey, Steven Gerrard.
Add World-Cup winning German midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger to this elite gathering of 21st century midfield generals, and you have another FIFA World Cup, eight domestic league titles, and three UEFA Champions League final appearances. Over the 87 years of collective experience these players have accumulated in their professional careers, they have become synonymous with their respective clubs. Indeed, Xavi, Gerrard, and Schweinsteiger have not experienced competitive football for more than one club, and Lampard and Pirlo are universally admired despite having played for rivals Chelsea and Manchester City, and Inter Milan, AC Milan, and Juventus respectively.
However, events of the last few weeks have made it clear that what remains of the walls of the last bastion that houses the previous generation of great footballers are slowly crumbling around us. Four of the five midfield stalwarts are above 34 years of age, and have made moves to lesser leagues to see out the rest of their playing days in surroundings that would have been unworthy of their presence at their peaks. Three of the five will soon officially lose their “one-club man” status, the appeal of which seems dangerously on the precipice of fading away with their transfers and the retirement of the likes of Giggs, Scholes, Carragher, Paolo Maldini, and Puyol. In a world where players’ careers are increasingly governed by inflated transfer fees, and shuffling of priorities has placed a hunger for trophies and easily-acquired success at all costs above the promise of cultural icon status at one club, these legends are reminders of the lost values that once defined the game. With the allure of multi-million pound transfers and massive wage packages increasingly difficult to resist, Xavi, Pirlo, Gerrard, Lampard, and Schweinsteiger are the last members of a dying breed, and their shadows shall loom large over the generations that follow. It is unlikely we will see many players define their generation the way these five have.