When Harry Kane went to shake 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 was up against the only other captain in Qatar under the age of 30.
For many of the rest, this seemed like a tournament too far.
It is easy to assume that it has always been this way. In the mind’s eye, those legends of the past seem larger than life. It becomes harder to imagine their younger selves once they get older and the image of the older gentleman crystallizes.
And yet, Didier Deschamps was only 29 when he lifted the trophy in France ’98. Carlos Alberto was just a pup at 25 when he captained Brazil to era-defining glory in 1970. Bobby Moore was the same age when he achieved the feat with England in 1996.
Diego Maradona? And he was 25 years old. As for Pele, he never captained his country at a World Cup, but then he never played in the thirties either, despite strong pressure from the Brazilian government to overturn his 1974 international retirement.
The aging icon of the World Cup may seem like a trope as old as the tournament itself, but consider that 17 of the 24 captains in 1982 were under 30 and that underlines the change. Only two captains out of 32 in the twenties? It is the smallest ever.
The international game seems to have been in something of a stasis, as famous faces cling to them for a close-up. This, despite the fact that the winter World Cup means it is the biggest gap between tournaments since the Second World War.
There are 24 nations in Qatar that also qualified for Russia 2018. Most of the captains from four and a half years ago remain. Brazilian Marcelo has left, but the captain’s baton has returned to 38-year-old Thiago Silva, the man who led them in 2014.
The tape stayed with not only Kane, but also Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi; with Eden Hazard, Luka Modric and Diego Godin; with Simon Kjaer, Robert Lewandowski and several others. Some of these players are still close to the best. Many are not.
Gareth Bale could still make the Wales squad on merit, but the sight of him and Aaron Ramsey flailing around the pitch made for uncomfortable viewing even for the supporters – a problem made worse when Joe Allen joined them.
Belgium’s players seem to recognize their problem. Jan Vertonghen has hinted that he is aware of the problems but wants to keep them in the dressing room. Too late for that. Kevin De Bruyne made his feelings clear before the World Cup.
“No way, we’re too old,” he said Guard. “I think 2018 was our chance. We have a good team, but it is getting old. We lost some key players. We have some good new players coming in, but they are not at the level that other players had in 2018.”
So can a golden generation. Maybe that happened with Croatia and Belgium, second and third in the last World Cup. For Wales, read Uruguay, with Godin, Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani. Perhaps the refresh could have come though.
Belgium, for example, prefer Hazard – a player who has started 29 of Real Madrid’s 128 La Liga games – to the in-form Leandro Trossard. Vaute Faes is another Premier League player who has been dropped in favor of Belgium’s Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld.
Hazard is not alone in holding out. Uruguayan captain Godin (36) barely played for the Argentine club Velez Sarsfield. Suarez also returned to South America with Nacional. Costa Rica captain Brian Ruiz, 37, is also back in his homeland with his first club Alajuelense.
Bale has started two of 18 games since moving to Los Angeles. Messi may join him in Major League Soccer. Ronaldo is now without a club. The next World Cup is closer than ever before, but few of them intend to be there.
Advances in sports science partly explain this increasing number of aging players. The levels of professionalism are greater than before with players fully committed to their lifestyle. It’s what keeps Ronaldo looking the picture of health as he approaches 38 years old.
Underneath, the aging process is impossible to mask. Those fast twitch muscle fibers are gone. Messi is great enough to use a yard of space, an instant lapse, a split second of time. But even for him, it’s getting harder.
It’s a real pleasure to watch Kylian Mbappe (23) shoot out of defense or Vinicius Junior (22) tease and torment his defender. It’s a reminder that even in this age of famous brands and footballers as independent contractors, this is a young man’s game.
Sports can be cruel. There is no hiding place. If Usain Bolt was a movie star, he would still be the box office hit. If Roger Federer were a rock star, he would still be selling out stadiums. Despite all the smoke and mirrors in Qatar, the truth will always be on the ground.
There were 21 men to captain their team to victory in the World Cup. Although Italy goalkeeper Dino Zoff was 40 years old, the majority are in their twenties. The average age of a World Cup winning captain is between 29 and 30 years old. Kane? Well, he’s 29 and a half years old.