Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo’s World Cup may be their last, but they are proving age is just a number
Football’s new generation of superstars might have to think again about stealing the show at Qatar 2022. Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale have made it pretty clear they are ready to prove that age is no barrier to success at the World Cup.
Messi, 34, scored all five goals in Argentina’s 5-0 win against Estonia on Sunday to move up to fourth in the all-time international goal scorers list with 86. At the top, the 37-year-old Ronaldo netted twice in Portugal’s 4-0 win against Lisbon to reach 117. Meanwhile Bale, a 32-year-old free agent following confirmation of his departure from Real Madrid last week, made the decisive contribution as Wales qualified for the World Cup for the first time since 1958 by beating Ukraine 1-0 in the final European playoff after Andriy Yarmolenko headed the winger’s free kick into his own net in Cardiff.
Ronaldo, Messi and Bale are almost certainly preparing for their last shot at World Cup glory later this year, but three of the most successful players in the history of club football will travel to Qatar with different ambitions and objectives.
Ronaldo and Messi will be determined to add the only thing missing from their stellar careers: World Cup success. Having both inspired their respective national teams to continental glory (Portugal at Euro 2016; Argentina at the 2021 Copa America), both players know they’re representing teams capable of winning in Qatar if they can overcome traditional favorites like France, Brazil and Germany.
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It will be a different story for Bale. Sources told ESPN that he would have retired if Wales had missed out on qualification to Ukraine, so just being there is “the final piece of the jigsaw” for his career. But while taking the team on a deep run in Qatar will be a tall order, he is capable of getting them out of a group containing England, Iran and the United States and into the knockout stages.
When Wales ended their 58-year wait to play in a major tournament at Euro 2016, the former Tottenham forward helped drive the team to a surprise run to the semifinals and, both against Ukraine and in the playoff semifinal against Austria in March (when he scored both goals in a 2-1 win), Bale showed that he is still a formidable force on the international stage.
Cristiano Ronaldo is still going strong ahead of what could be his last World Cup. Marcio Machado/Eurasia Sport Images/Getty Images
It is undoubtedly the same for Messi and Ronaldo, while there are some other notable veterans who are capable of going out with a bang in what will probably be their last World Cup. France’s Karim Benzema (34), Poland’s Robert Lewandowski (33), Uruguay’s Luis Suarez (35) and Edinson Cavani (35), have all delivered at the highest level during the past decade and can do so again in Qatar.
Footballers are now playing well into their 30s, with Ronaldo and 40-year-old Zlatan Ibrahimovic (though there is no final curtain for him in Qatar, as Sweden failed to qualify) showing that ultra-professionalism and dedication to their fitness can sustain a top player far beyond the finishing line of some former greats of the game.
Read all the latest news and reaction from ESPN FC senior writer Mark Ogden.
Brazil legend Pele was 29 when he played in his last World Cup in Mexico in 1970, while Argentina’s Diego Maradona bowed out — after failing a drug test — as a 33-year-old at USA 94. France midfielder Zinedine Zidane was 34 when he played at Germany 2006, while Brazil striker Ronaldo, whose career was ravaged by injuries, also played his last World Cup game at 29. Messi and Ronaldo have already gone beyond the paths trod by their illustrious predecessors just by making it to Qatar, but they won’t settle for simply being at the World Cup. They will expect to make a memorable impact.
The new generation — led by France’s Kylian Mbappe, Spain’s Pedri, Brazil’s Vinicius Junior, England’s Phil Foden and Norway’s Erling Haaland — has the players most likely to dominate this decade in the club game and could also be the star names who light up the World Cups in 2026 and 2030. But the old guard have shown that they are not ready to hand over the baton just yet, eager to make the 2022 World Cup their own.
Can Messi or Ronaldo put the perfect seal on their careers by winning a World Cup? And can Bale, Benzema, Suarez & Co. leave us with indelible memories of their greatness and longevity? The answer to those questions is a clear yes, which is a testament to their sheer quality and professionalism.