World Cup 2022: Gareth Bale, Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and co have earned the right to play as long as they want to - Stuart Rayner
Luis Suarez has been a bit-part player for Uruguay and Edinson Cavani has not exactly justified playing ahead of him, Thomas Muller is yet to add to his fantastic goalscoring record for Germany, Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo looks more of an expensive luxury begging for goals every day and for all Lionel Messi showed a couple of flashes of genius against Mexico, he appears to be trying to play walking football. Carrying him could catch up on an Argentina team loaded with expectation after coming to Qatar 36 matches unbeaten when the quality ramps up in the knockout stages.
Belgium collectively just look over the hill.
At 33, 32 and 31 respectively they might be young pups in the eyes of players like Thiago Silva and Luka Modric still churning out performances at the highest level, but injury records, style of play and even genetics mean not everyone hits the wall at the same time, and a lack of club football this season has tipped all three the wrong side of the line that separates fresh from rusty in Qatar, to the detriment of a team over-dependent on them.
Given that World Cups are a natural time for great players to hang up their boots, having one in the middle of a European season was always going to add another interesting dynamic to this unpredictable 2022-23. There are sure to be international retirements this Christmas, but guessing how many will walk away entirely is harder to guess.
Bale, it seems, will not do that.
Given the priorities of the man who famously waved a "Wales. Golf. Madrid. In that order" flag, this tournament has for a long time seemed the natural end for a career which is fading away after shining so brightly at its peak, but in the post-match interviews which followed his country's World Cup exit on Tuesday, he was having none of it.
Good on him.
It might be that it is in Wales's best interests to move on from their talisman, just as it might be for Portugal and Germany, and if the managers feel that way, fine, but why force the issue if you are Bale? The only reason can be ego, wanting to make out the break-up was on your terms, not that of the country which jilts you.
But when it comes to Wales, Bale seems refreshingly happy to park his ego at the door.
David Beckham was similarly minded when Steve McClaren tried to move England on from him. Stuck on 99 caps, he bit his tongue, got his head down and waited for a Three Lions manager – Fabio Capello –who handed him 16 more before eventually setting him aside. Still he did not retire.
Contrast that with players such as Zinedine Zidane, Lilian Thuram, Henrik Larsson and Claude Makele, who all retired from international football, only to change their minds.
There can be something faintly disheartening about seeing a player you admired so much in his pomp fighting a losing battle against Father Time. But there is also something depressing about the first time someone younger than you plays international football, the first time a player whose debut you watched retires, or the first time you see the son (or daughter) of one of your favourite players (or worse still contemporaries) start out in professional football. It is no reason to stop any of those things happening either.
Besides, others quite like watching bloated versions of their long-retired heroes in testimonials or masters football.
For those lucky enough to choose the date, retirement is a very personal thing. The players who decide to do it often tell you there was a day when they got out of bed – often very gingerly – and just knew, but not everyone is wired the same.
Now he has torched his bridges with Manchester United, Ronaldo has to decide which of the three principles that stopped him moving in the summer – the desire to play regularly, in the Champions League, and to be paid obscenely for it – he is prepared to compromise on but at 37 he does not seem to have any desire to walk away from the game altogether.
With a move to Saudi Arabia mooted, it looks like the middle one of the three. Semi-retirement also beckons for Messi, in Miami.
in 2017 former Balon d’Or winner Pavel Nedved came out of retirement to play alongside his son aged 45.
In an era where we question how much some players really love football, it is good to see them wanting to play for as long as they can run around a field and in Messi and Nedved's cases longer.
If boxers want to fight on too long, they have to be stopped for their own sake, if Formula One drivers do, for the safety of others. But if Bale wants to keep making himself available to play international football, it is nobody's business to say no.