The European game bade farewell to a trio of wonderful footballers and you don’t have to be a supporter of Bayern Munich or Feyenoord to feel a tinge of sadness at their departures.
Philipp Lahm, Xabi Alonso and Dirk Kuyt all left on a high, too, the first two as Bundesliga winners and the latter the hat-trick hero who won the Dutch title for Feyenoord.
While it’s hard to begrudge these players their well-earned retirement after so many years in the upper echelons of the European game, football will be a little poorer for their absence on a number of levels – particularly as each still had much to offer in a playing sense.
It’s emblematic of a significant shift in the career cycles of star players over the past few decades. Contemporary icons now reach a certain footballing and financial level in the game and rarely have to accept dropping beneath it, even as age diminishes their capabilities. Some may accept a move to play in lower-standard Leagues like China or the United States, but that’s simply because the lucrative financial rewards provide more than adequate compensation. Many others, like this weekend’s trio, simply retire.
Things used to be very different. Back in the day being a footballer, even an international one, was never especially lucrative and players often had to drag their tired legs around a pitch for as long as they could find a club willing to pay them to do so.
With wages being modest, by extension this meant that the differential in wages between what major and minor clubs paid was bridgeable too and big-name veterans saw no shame in a last respectable payday at a lower division club. Call it the Footballers’ Circle – start as a youngster at a small club, work up towards career peak at a bigger club then wind down those final years back at the level where he started out.
1966 and all that
Take a look at the 1966 World Cup Final line-ups which feature many stars of the day who went on to play out their club days in the lower divisions – examples include Bobby Moore (Fulham), Ray Wilson (Oldham and Bradford City), Roger Hunt (Bolton), Horst-Dieter Höttges (Overbecksen), Siggi Held (Uerdingen) and Lothar Emmerich (Würzburger).
Now, Dirk Kuyt still looks as if he could run for another decade without taking a breath and there’s a case to be made that Lahm and Xabi Alonso could comfortably play on for at least another season at Bayern – Arsenal fans in particular will testify to their evergreen qualities. Wherever they might have played on, all three would undoubtedly have brought a level of quality and experience to enhance the majority of European teams.
Completing the circle
And looking beyond just the footballing worth, imagine how thrilling it would be for supporters to see Philipp Lahm bomb up and down the right flank for Mainz, Xabi Alonso dictating the tempo of the Las Palmas midfield or Dirk Kuyt tirelessly chasing every pass his new PEC Zwolle teammates hit in his direction. Sadly it will never happen as such clubs, however ambitious they might be, will find it impossible to come up with a compelling enough financial and footballing package for multi-millionaires who never need to work another day in their lives if they choose not to.
SEE ALSO: Dutch courage: the Dirk Kuyt story
The high-quality stars of the modern game have gradually become the exclusive preserve of the continent’s superclubs from an earlier and earlier age, and it’s an unfortunate development in the game that the less-fashionable clubs don’t now even get a chance to briefly reclaim those faded stars in their twilight years.