Curtain call: 10 veterans likely playing in their last World Cup

Spain's Andres Iniesta, right. (Manu Fernandez/AP)

Going out on top is the dream of every professional athlete, but rarely does that dream become a reality.

Miroslav Klose is one of the lucky ones. Germany’s all-time leading scorer entered what would be his final World Cup in 2014 with a chance to make history, and became the tournament’s all-time leading scorer with his 16th World Cup goal. Die Mannschaft would go on to win the tournament, and Klose retired from international football at the peak of his career.

Who in 2018 could “pull a Klose” and lift the trophy in their final World Cup appearance? Here are 10 footballers likely playing for the last time on football’s biggest stage.

The FIFA World Cup in Russia runs from June 14 to July 15, and Sportsnet.ca will have in-depth daily coverage.

Radamel Falcao, 32, Colombia

Despite being his country’s all-time leading goal scorer, Falcao has yet to suit up for a World Cup match.

Falcao played a crucial role in Colombia’s qualification in 2014, but a torn ACL forced the striker to miss the tournament. Colombia would go on to reach the quarterfinals – its best-ever showing at a World Cup – while its main goal-scoring threat watched from home.

Now, coming off a pair of stellar seasons with French club AS Monaco during which he scored 54 total goals, Falcao will make his debut (and likely only) appearance in the World Cup as a young, exciting Colombia side looks to build on the success of four years ago.

Cristiano Ronaldo, 33, Portugal

Would it be entirely shocking if, at 37, Ronaldo suited up for Portugal at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar? Not at all.

But it’s not likely. Over the last couple of seasons, the speed that made Ronaldo so dangerous from out wide has diminished and, while the Portuguese star remains among the world’s best scorers, it’s just the first sign that even the world’s best athletes can’t delay Father Time for long.

That means 2018 could be the last chance for one of the all-time greats to claim World Cup glory. Despite featuring in three World Cups in his time with the Portuguese national team and his tendency to come up big when his country needs him most, Ronaldo has had surprisingly little success on this stage: three goals in 13 matches – one in each group stage – and just one run past the Round of 16, albeit that was a fourth-place finish in 2006.

Can Portugal repeat the success of Spain, capturing the World Cup after winning the Euros? It seems far-fetched given their predicted path to the final, but not many thought Ronaldo’s team could pull it off in 2016, either.

Luis Suárez, 31, Uruguay

Uruguay’s best-ever goal-scorer is one of the most controversial figures in World Cup history.

One of the top poachers in the game, Suárez was a vital part, along with Diego Forlan, of Uruguay’s fourth-place finish in 2010. But the 31-year-old is remembered most for a game-saving handball in South Africa, and taking a bite out of Giorgio Chiellini in 2014.

This summer in Russia could be Suárez’s final World Cup, and Uruguay are once again considered contenders to make a deep run. Will Suárez use his third World Cup appearance to rebuild his international reputation, or end this tournament like he has the last two: seeing red?

Tim Cahill, 38, Australia

Australia have a +30,000 shot at winning the World Cup, according to OddsShark, but Cahill is a legend … so he makes this list.

About to appear in his fourth straight World Cup, Cahill has scored goals in each of the last three. The 38-year-old midfielder made history in 2006, becoming the first Australian to score at the World Cup when he bagged two in a 3-1 win over Japan. Cahill also stole headlines in 2014 for a stunning volley against the Netherlands that earned him FIFA’s award for goal of the year.

The Socceroos have failed to make it out of the group stage since 2006, but if one player could help them break that streak, it’s Australia’s all-time leading scorer.

Luka Modrić, 32, Croatia

Modrić enters his third World Cup (Croatia failed to qualify in 2010) fresh off a stellar performance against Liverpool as Real Madrid won its third straight Champions League title. In the midst of unprecedented success at club level, Modrić leads one of the best Croatian teams in years to Russia with sights on achieving that same success internationally.

Modrić’s best finish with Croatia came at the 2008 Euros (quarterfinals), while a 19th-place showing in 2014 is the nation’s best World Cup showing with Modrić in the squad. Captain on and off the pitch, Modrić is the focal point of a star-studded midfield that has some believing the Eastern European nation can equal success it hasn’t seen since a third-place finish in 1998.

Rafael Márquez, 39, Mexico

Márquez is only the fourth-ever player to be named to five World Cup squads, joining Mexico’s Antonio Carbajal, Germany’s Lothar Matthäus and Italy’s Gianluigi Buffon. If he takes the pitch in Russia, he’ll join Carbajal and Matthäus as just the third footballer to have played in five different World Cups.

Despite that remarkable achievement, Márquez’s Mexico has been eliminated from the tournament in the Round of 16 in all four tournaments the defender has played. El Tri’s consistency at the World Cup must be applauded, but frustrated fans will hope a deeper run is in the cards for Mexico.

What are the chances Márquez will see the quarterfinals for the first time in Russia? Not good. In all likelihood, Mexico will meet tournament-favourites Brazil in the Round of 16.

Andrés Iniesta, 33, Spain

After saying a heartfelt goodbye last month to FC Barcelona, the only professional club he’s ever known, Spain’s midfield maestro will look to lead his country to its second World Cup title of the decade in what is sure to be his final appearance on world football’s biggest stage.

One of the best-ever midfielders, the 33-year-old will represent, along with Sergio Ramos and David Silva, the golden generation as Spain look to recapture the success of 2008 and 2010, and give Iniesta another proper send-off.

Vincent Kompany, 31, Belgium

Kompany can follow up captaining Manchester City to the best-ever Premier League season with captaining Belgium to its first-ever competitive trophy.

While Spain’s golden generation is nearing its end, the Red Devils are in the midst of theirs, with the likes of Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku leading the attack for a Belgian squad with its sights on World Cup glory. And while Kompany may be well past his best days physically, his leadership will be crucial to his side for a run to the final.

Thiago Silva, 33, Brazil

One thing will be on the minds of the Brazilian squad in Russia: redemption.

The Canarinho were famously thrashed 7-1 by eventual champs Germany on home soil in the 2014 semifinals. And while Brazil’s most remembered omission from that match was an injured Neymar, captain Silva was also forced to miss the game due to suspension. Widely considered among the best defenders in the tournament, Silva’s presence was hugely missed on the fateful day.

Like four years ago, Brazil are once again among the favourites in Russia. However, Silva returns to the World Cup in Russia, his second, no longer captain and unlikely to start the opener. But that doesn’t mean the 33-year-old won’t have an impact – either on the pitch or off – as Brazil seeks its redemption.

Manuel Neuer, 32, Germany

For months, there has been doubt over the fitness of the best goalkeeper on the planet – and Germany’s captain – in the lead-up to what will likely be his final World Cup.

A foot injury derailed Neuer’s 2017-18 season, and the 32-year-old hadn’t played until manning the net for a friendly against Austria on June 2 – a good sign for Die Mannschaft despite a 2-1 loss.

It likely means the generational ‘keeper will feature as the opening-match starter in his third consecutive World Cup (despite Marc-Andre ter Stegen waiting in the wings) as Germany look to become the first back-to-back World Cup winners since Brazil in 1958 and 1962.

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