When Harry Kane shook hands with United States midfielder Tyler Adams before kick-off, he was up against the only captain at this World Cup who is younger than him. In fact, he fought the only captain in Qatar until the age of 30.
For many of the rest, it felt like a tournament too far.
It is easy to think that it has always been this way. In the mind’s eye, those legends of yesteryear seem larger than life. It becomes harder to imagine the younger self as they get older and the image of the older gentleman emerges.
And yet Didier Deschamps was just 29 when he lifted the trophy in France in 1998. Carlos Alberto, aged 25, was young when in 1970 captained Brazil and won the glory of the era. Bobby Moore was the same age when he died in 1996. achieved the feat with England.
Diego Maradona? He was also 25 years old. As for Pele, he never captained his country at a World Cup, but then he also never played in his thirties, despite intense pressure from the Brazilian government to reverse his 1974 withdrawal.
The aging icon of the World Cup may seem like the tournament itself, but keep in mind that 17 of the 24 captains in 1982 were under the age of 30, and this highlights the change. Only two captains out of 32 twenty? This is the lowest number so far.
The international game seems to have been in a bit of a stasis as familiar faces stick to their close-quarters. This despite the winter World Cup meaning it was the longest gap between tournaments since the Second World War.
There are 24 countries in Qatar, which in 2018 also entered Russia. Most of the captains who worked four and a half years ago remained. Brazilian Marcelo has left, but Thiago Silva, 38, the man who led them in 2014, is back as captain.
Not only Kane, but also Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi were left with the writing; with Eden Hazard, Luka Modric and Diego Godin; with Simon Kjaer, Robert Lewandowski and several others. Some of these players are still close to their prime. Many don’t.
Gareth Bale may still be a credit to Wales, but the sight of him and Aaron Ramsey roaming the pitch has made even the fans uncomfortable, a problem exacerbated when Joe Allen joins them.
The Belgian players seem to understand their problem. Jan Vertonghen hinted that he was aware of the problems but wanted to keep them to the dressing room. Too late for that. Kevin De Bruyne made his feelings clear even before the World Cup.
“No way, we’re too old,” he said Guardian. “I think our chance was in 2018. We have a good team, but it’s getting old. We’ve lost a few key players. We’ve got some good new players, but they’re not at the level that other players were in 2018.”
This can be the case with the golden generation. Maybe that’s what happened with Croatia and Belgium, second and third in the last World Cup. In Wales, read Uruguay with Godin, Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani. Still, perhaps refreshment could come.
For example, Belgium preferred Hazard, a player who has started 29 of 128 La Liga games for Real Madrid, over the in-form Leandro Trossard. Wout Faes is another Premier League player passed over in favor of Belgium’s Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld.
Danger isn’t the only one sticking around. Godin, the 36-year-old Uruguay captain, has barely played for Argentina’s Velez Sarsfield. Suarez also returned to South America with Nacional. Costa Rican captain Bryan Ruiz, 37, has also returned to his homeland with first club Alajuelense.
Bale has started two of 18 games since moving to Los Angeles. Messi can join him in Major League Soccer. Ronaldo is now without a club. The next World Cup is closer than ever to the previous tournament, but few of them intend to be there.
Advances in sports science partly explain the increase in the number of aging players. The level of professionalism is higher than before because the players are fully committed to their lifestyle. That’s what makes Ronaldo look at his health picture as he approaches 38 years old.
At the bottom, the aging process cannot be disguised. Those fast twitch muscle fibers are gone. Messi is great enough to exploit a yard of space, a momentary gap, a split second. But even for him, it’s getting harder and harder.
It’s a visceral pleasure to watch 23-year-old Kylian Mbappe burst out of defense or 22-year-old Vinicius Junior tease and torment his full-back. It’s a reminder that even in this age of celebrity brands and footballers as independent contractors, it’s still a young man’s game.
Sports can be brutal. There is no hiding place. If Usain Bolt was a movie star, he would still be at the box office. If Roger Federer were a rock star, he’d still be selling out stadiums. Despite all the smoke and mirrors of Qatar, the truth will always be on the field.
21 men led their team in the World Cup. Although Italy goalkeeper Dino Zoff was 40 years old, most of the players were in their twenties. The average age of a World Cup winning captain is between 29 and 30 years. Who? Well, he’s 29 and a half.