It has been a poignant few weeks for the subject of sporting mortality. Last month saw the emotional retirements of Serena Williams and Roger Federer, two tennis players so majestic that the game could continue for centuries and spectators would not find anyone else nearly so spellbinding. In August, there were the frantic attempts by Cristiano Ronaldo’s management to find their superstar one last UEFA Champions League team where he could add to his formidable tally of goals in that competition. As an elite athlete, one of the hardest things to master is the art of aging gracefully: to accept the fact that your extravagant gifts, those which have not only brought you unimaginable fame and wealth but also comprised the core of your identity, were only ever on loan. One person who seems to be handling this issue better than most is Toni Kroos. In a recent interview for Prime Sport Video Deutschland, Kroos spoke frankly with Stefan Reinartz, a friend and former teammate, about how he is now much more at home in a deep-lying midfield role, far away from the final third he occupied in his earlier and more energetic years. “You need to feel comfortable playing between the lines and I lost that feeling of comfort over the years to an extent,” he told Reinartz, noting that the last time he had played that high up the pitch had been under Jupp Heynckes at Bayern Munich, almost 10 years ago. Were he to play in that position now, he continued, “I would probably … lose the ball more often because it’s tighter and there’s more pressure. I think I’m of more help to the team where I’m currently playing.”
Looking at his résumé, one wonders whether Kroos initially struggled to acknowledge that he could no longer handle the game at its most intense. This is someone, after all, who has won a World Cup and five of the six UEFA Champions League finals in which he has played, as well as six domestic league titles. That’s the type of tally that gives birth to a considerable ego. Yet the key to Kroos’s dignified retreat is that, for much of his career, most of his best work has tended to evade scrutiny. Later in the video, he refers to a moment when he made a deceptively straightforward pass to help Ferland Mendy escape down the wing, a move that resulted in a goal by Vinicius Jr.—a pass that, Kroos wryly notes, will go unnoticed by almost everyone who watches and rewatches that game. Perhaps Kroos is finding it simpler than most to step away from the stage because he never truly had the spotlight in the first place.
Football is much tougher on those aging players who have always been the undisputed headline act. When Cristiano Ronaldo was glowering from the bench as Manchester United were routed 6-3 by Manchester City, his frustration was brutally evident. It was almost as humiliating as if Eminem had turned up at an open mic night in Detroit and had been refused the chance to perform. Someone who has managed this transition to lesser-playing talisman more happily than Ronaldo is Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the similarly confident Swede. Last season Ibrahimovic enjoyed the best of both worlds. He contributed a notable number of important goals when he was on the pitch, and then watched like a benevolent emperor from the sidelines as his AC Milan team claimed the Serie A title, at one point apparently more prominent on social media than Olivier Giroud, the forward whose goals on the final day of the season actually sealed the championship.
Of course, the best way to defy time is to have a physique that serves you absurdly well: see, for example, Real Madrid’s evergreen Croat Luka Modric, or Brazil’s Marta and Formiga, the latter of whom is still appearing as a professional at the age of 44. Yet if you show even a little sign of frailty then football will still be quick to find ways to dispose of you, preferably with as little dignity as possible. The game often seems ashamed of its legends, which is maybe why its older players are so frequently bundled out of the door. Look, for example, at the manner in which Juventus discarded Alessandro del Piero, with del Piero revealing last year that they had not so much as offered him a directorship upon retirement.
It’s a rare and special thing to handle your demise with class: even more so to do it in a manner that ensures you remain a winner. Some elite footballers, like Gabriel Batistuta, gather their strength for one final furious and spectacular push for glory. Others, like Andres Iniesta, waltz toward the exit, their departure as exquisitely timed as their arrival. However they do it, though, there is always something unsettling about watching a great player leave the game in their 30s, with millions of their adoring fans knowing that their lives may never hit higher emotional peaks than that. It is not only the sadness that we will never again see them entertain us in their prime: It is also the sense of premature departure, the reminder that true beauty can be snatched away from us long before we are ready to let go. It is a form of mourning. (If that seems somewhat melodramatic, then consider this: that “Time to Say Goodbye”, a song composed to mark the retirement of the great German boxer Henry Maske, went on to become one of the most popular songs at British funerals.)
There is a small and powerful genre of film in which actors, themselves advanced in their years, explore what it means to be approaching the ends of their lives. There are those who face the end with warmth, almost reverence; like, say, Harry Dean Stanton, who plays the title character in Lucky (2017). Then there are those who are quietly terrified, like Frank Sheeran, Robert de Niro’s aging hitman in 2019’s The Irishman. What both films capture superbly is the way in which life ruthlessly passes you by, just as our senior footballers watch as supporters slowly forget them and find new gods, new legends. That is why, when the time comes to say goodbye, it is so vital that at least some of us will not only remember them fondly, but remind them that there can still be a rewarding existence far beyond the roar of the stadium. They need to be able to leave the game with not only melancholy at what they have lost, but also a certain lightness, a sense that they are free from its often-overwhelming pressures at last. This mood is best summarised by the simple yet unexpectedly moving Instagram story posted by José Mourinho to Gonzalo Higuaín, the prolific yet ill-fated forward whom he coached at Real Madrid, and who also starred for, among others, River Plate, Napoli, Juventus, and Argentina. “Are you tired of score goals?” asked Mourinho, above an image where he is greeting Higuaín as he walks to the substitute’s bench. “Enjoy the rest of your life!”