Top 10 30-somethings still seeking a major international trophy
Background image: Dan Noctor, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Can you imagine if Johan Cruijff or George Best had won a Euro or World Cup? Their legacies are already astounding but an international honour might have put them higher in the debate over the greatest of all time. On the other hand, Franz Beckenbauer and Zinedine Zidane were both World Cup winners and that didn’t get them through the door.
In any event, it’s fair to say that winning a World Cup or Confederation championship fall one and two on most player’s wish list for career achievements, ahead of league titles, Champions Leagues and Ballon d’Ors. Still, achieving those dreams isn’t fully in the player’s control. He needs the strongest of supporting casts and a healthy dose of good fortune to reach an elite podium. Like Cruijff and Bestie, some of the greatest never do.
Here, then, is a list of ten current 30-somethings still hoping to add a World Cup, European Championship, Copa America or AFCON winners’ medal to their collection.
This is one category the 33-year-old Barcelona legend does not wish to top but there’s no getting around his unfulfilled quest to add a major international trophy to his long, long list of club honours. Twice in the middle of the decade, he failed to stop a pale imitation of his greatness, Chile’s Alexis Sanchez, from pipping him to a Copa America. Then, even with Neymar unavailable, Brazil crushed his dream with a 2-0 win in the 2019 semi-final at Estadio Mineirao in Belo Horizonte. Worse, chief rival Cristiano Ronaldo erased the corresponding black mark from his CV with a Euro16 triumph over France, forcing Il Maestro to win a sixth Ballon d’Or to level terms again.
This summer, Messi chases the dream once more in Colombia--no, wait, Argentina--no, wait, Brazil--yes, yes, it’s definitely Brazil. He scored a goal in the opening draw with Chile but was silent in the followup win over Uruguay. Meanwhile, Brazil mowed down Venezuela 3-0 and 2019 finalists Peru 4-0 with Neymar scoring in both.
Finally getting the international monkey off his back, especially at the Maracana, would be sweet nectar indeed and give the vultures one less wound at which to pick. It won’t be easy, however.
One Ballon d’Or winner on this list is surprising enough, but a second. Many football fans felt the Croatian didn’t deserve to win the award in 2018 but a year that saw him engineer a fourth Champions League title in five years with Real Madrid as well as a runners-up finish to France in the Russia18 World Cup made it difficult to deny his greatness.
Thirty-two at the time, detractors expected him to take his gold-encrusted miniature ball and go home or at least to Inter. Instead, the orchestral conductor remained at the Santiago Bernabeu where he continues to make Madridistas sing.
Now 35, this summer’s Euros might be Modric’s final chance for international glory before he retires and the Croatian government makes his birthplace a national shrine to rival Tito’s. Unfortunately, an opening match defeat to England made that all the more difficult. With 16 of 24 nations advancing to the knockout stage, however, anything is possible.
By all rights, there should be a third Ballon d’Or recipient on this list but FIFA elected to forego naming a winner in 2020 due to COVID-19, effectively erasing Robert Lewandowski’s 55 goals for Bayern Munich and the Champions League triumph that they produced. The world governing body may feel obligated to make it up to him in 2021, with his 48 goals eclipsing Lionel Messi in double figures but you’d forgive him for being cynical on that front.
At the moment, the 32-year-old who seems to continue improving with age is preoccupied with his country’s fortunes in Euro2020. Over the weekend, he provided the equaliser as Poland drew with Spain. The goal was a lifeline after a shock defeat to Slovakia in the first group match. Still, Poland must defeat Sweden in the final group match for Lewi to retain even the faintest hope of conquering Europe with his country as he has with his club.
There is one striker who would have loved to end Lewandowski’s dream while furthering his own but fate intervened. You couldn’t blame Zlatan Ibrahimovic for drowning his sorrows at an appropriately named hometown honky tonk after coming out of international retirement at 39 for one last shot at European glory only for a last-minute knee injury to knock him out of the tournament. Ibra had to have been so keen on the opportunity after a long trophyless spell in the late stages of his career.
From 2001/02 to 2015/16, the outspoken Swede won 13 league titles with, in chronological order, Ajaz, Juventus, Internazionale, Barcelona, Milan and Paris Saint-Germain. Since then, in turns with Manchester United, LA Galaxy and a return to Milan, Zlatan has come up empty. Winning a European championship would have made up for that five-year drought but, alas, we aren’t likely to see the 39-year-old on the international stage again.
In private, the topknotted Welshman likely wishes he had the same level of talent in Cymru as he did at Real Madrid where his timely goals helped the Merengues to four Champions League titles. Instead, his memorable strikes for the Dragons tend to go unsupported.
Regardless, hope prevails. The 31-year-old is headed for the knockout stages after a stalwart Wales held Italy to one goal in the final group match despite defender Ethan Ampadu’s 55th-minute red card. Second place on goal difference allows manager Rob Page to avoid doing the complicated maths that decide which four third-place nations advance.
For his part, Bale intends to return to the Santiago Bernabeu to give Real Madrid one more go before being rolled out to pasture like his grassy namesakes. Dreams never die. They just dry out in the brutal Welsh sun.
Although we tend to forget, Europe and South America aren’t the only continents to produce world class talent. Africa has given football more than its fair share of legends from George Weah and Roger Milla on down to Samuel Eto’o, Didier Drogba and Pierre-Emrick Aubameyang.
Sadly, the fleet of foot Gabonese hasn’t been able to run into a Bundesliga, Premier, Champions or Europa League title in his 13-year career. Nor has he conquered Africa with the Panthers. Despite names like Auba, Fulham’s Mario Lemina and St Etienne’s Denis Bouanga, Gabon is not as steeped in talent as other African nations.
Aubameyang will take one last shot at the AFCON this winter, leaving in the lurch Arsenal or any club to which they are rumoured to be hawking his wares. The 32-year-old had no say in CAF’s decision to return the continental championship to the winter months. He just wants to get his hands on some silverware before it’s time to hit the beach in Santa Clara.
Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci have been in the wars. The ageing pair of Juventus sentinels have made life difficult for opponents storming the Turin battlements over the past decade, ruling Serie A together for most of their careers.
Still, both came along a little too late to enjoy Italy's most recent hurrah on the International stage, the World Cup triumph in Germany in 2006. They came close with Antonio Conte in 2016 but it was not to be. Die Mannschaft exacted a small measure of revenge with a quarter-final victory on penalties.
Chiellini almost literally gave a pound of flesh at Brazil14, when Luis Suarez climbed his back like a voracious lion and bit into his shoulder. Regardless, the 36-year-old and his partner, two years the junior, soldier on at Euro2020 where Roberto Mancini’s Azzurri put down all comers in the group stage. The knockouts now beckon for the pair most likely but hardly guaranteed to avoid ending their careers on this dubious list.
Easily the greatest misnomer in football, Ciro Immobile is the exact opposite of the proverbial immovable object. Rather, he is an irresistible force in the final third for Lazio in Serie A and Italy on the world stage.
The 31-year-old has been hit and miss in his career, blowing the tyres off opponents at Pescara and Torino but crashing into the guard rails for Genoa, Borussia Dortmund and Sevilla before finally finding his highest gear at the Stadio Olympico. These days, he is likely to be seen running through Roman streets celebrating his latest strike for the Biancocelesti.
Like Chiellini and Bonucci, he hopes to finally find success in an Azzurri kit. If they take care of business in front of their goal and he in front of the opponents, as he’s done twice already, it’s very possible joy will come their way.
While he's from an hour-and-a-half south and east of Bruges, Eden Hazard is as likely to make as significant an impact in the Gothic city as Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson. Critics have counted him out since he forced a move from Chelsea to Real Madrid and the dervish of an attacking midfielder bore them out with his poor performances in the Spanish capital. His form dipped to the point where Belgium manager Roberto Martinez decided to select his lesser-known brother Thorgan for the Red Devils’ first two group games.
He came on at the hour mark v Denmark with the result still in the balance. It was fellow sub Kevin de Bruyne who found the winner but Hazard created havoc in the Danish defence nonetheless. Can he find his best form in time for Belgium to win the tournament? Only time will tell.
The streets of Buenos Aires are friendlier when you wear a Copa America winners’ medal around your neck. Unfortunately, that piece of jewelry has evaded 33-year-old Sergio Aguero along with close friend Lionel Messi.
With the Manchester City legend signing with Barcelona on the free immediately after the Sky Blues came up short against Chelsea in the Champions League Final, Kun and his bestie will have plenty of time to either revel in their long-awaited South American championship or commiserate and take their revenge on luckless visitors to the Camp Nou during the 2021/20 Liga campaign. Which will it be?
Whereas Kun departed the Etihad Stadium a deeply beloved figure wished nothing but the best by all he left behind, the same can't be said for 30-year-old Gini Wijnaldum who snubbed Liverpool in favour of Paris Saint-Germain. The Dutchman's agent admitted his client "ultimately wanted to move elsewhere" or, to put it in terms to which the Kop can relate, chose to walk alone.
There is nothing the midfielder can win at PSG that would surpass his Merseyside honours but he remains in the hunt for silverware with the Netherlands national team. L'Oranje's only major trophy came in Euro88 but they rank among the favourites this time around even without defender Virgil van Dijk. Undoubtedly, Wijnaldum is key to manager Frank de Boer's plans and supporters' hopes. If they don't win, however, Gini can learn an old French adage from his new Parisian teammates: c'est la vie.
As fate would have it, there were a handful of 29-year-olds who also began the summer still dreaming of international glory. James Rodriguez was stunned to be left off the Colombia squad for the Copa America, dashing his hopes for leading his country to victory. Egypt aren’t likely to snub Mo Salah for this winter’s AFCON but he too must play the waiting game. Meanwhile, Kevin de Bruyne, fractured orbital bone and all, came off the bench for Belgium against Denmark to help make his dream come true. Sadly, Christian Eriksen was not on the pitch to counter his wizardry after suffering a heart attack against Finland that may have prematurely ended his career on the tournament’s second day. The entire footballing world is hoping that isn’t the case.
Much further back in the queue is 27-year-old England captain Harry Kane who seems like the Three Lions elder statesman even though there are no less than nine players in Gareth Southgate’s ‘youthful’ squad older than the World Cup and three-time Premier League Golden Boot winner, including 30-somethings Kyle Walker, Jordan Henderson and Kieran Trippier, all seeking their first major tournament final victory in England colours.
And who can say? With the final still scheduled for Wembley, Kane and his mates, greybeards and flush-cheeked silver-haired youngsters alike, may not have to bring the trophy home at all. They just need to ensure that it stays.