It’s a nightmare scenario, but sometimes that scenario fights into reality.
Throughout football history, we’ve seen countless ballers come and go. Some stick around for a long time. Some are gone too soon.
We can list a number of all-time greats who have all played at least two decades at the senior level. At 45 years old, Gianluigi Buffon recently retired after a mind-blowing 28-year playing career.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic wasn’t too far off; he hung up his boots at 41 years old following a 24-year playing career with limited long-term injuries.
Meanwhile, Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Luka Modric are all still playing and breaking records with seemingly no end.
Ronaldo even recently came out to say this:
These sorts of players have been blessed with longevity and the ability to overcome and avoid injuries that would otherwise have sidelined them for long periods of time. As a result, they can live up to their full potential and achieve all that there is to achieve.
Dare we even mention Kazuyoshi Miura? You may recognize the name, he’s that Japanese footballer that - at 56 years old - is still playing professional football. Your eyes aren’t deceiving you. He began his senior career with Brazilian club Santos in - wait for it - 1986. Yes, the same year Diego Maradona won the World Cup with Argentina. The guy has been playing for 37 years and counting!
In the world of football, though, there will always be others that aren’t as fortunate.
In this 25th edition of the Plei newsletter, I list five different footballers that were forced into premature retirement, as well as the reasons behind the tough decision. 👇
It’s safe to say that in the long run, the German forward may only be remembered by most for his match-winning assist to Mario Gotze in extra time to win the 2014 World Cup Final against Argentina.
But for those that know their footy lore through and through, he’ll be remembered as a serious threat on the ball, a pacey player that could easily break defensive lines, execute lightning-fast counter attacks to perfection and finish clinically inside & outside the box.
Andre Schürrle began his senior career with Mainz 05 in 2009 after coming up through their youth ranks. He enjoyed a fruitful career in the Bundesliga, playing for Bayern Leverkusen before making a big money move to Chelsea. He only stayed at the London club for a year and a half, but scored a number of goals and received a Premier League medal for the 14/15 season despite departing to Wolfsburg in February.
His performances for Wolfsburg in his return to the Bundesliga would earn him a move to Borussia Dortmund, and he’d go on two different loans to Fulham and Spartak Moscow before retiring in 2020 at just 29 years old.
The reason for his retirement isn’t one that you see every day. Schürrle endured plenty of criticism and pressure throughout his 11-year career. In his words, “the lows were becoming lower, and the highs were fewer and further between.”
He had enough of the mental demands of football, a career path that at times requires players to become robots, sacrificing all of their human qualities in order to focus on performing well day in and day out.
Simply put, Schürrle chose to put his mental health first, and I can only commend him for making such a decision.
A second German makes the list.
If there’s one player that fits the ‘streets will never forget’ category, it’s Mesut Özil at his absolute prime. Technically gifted, intelligent, quick, agile, creative, elegant; there’s many ways you can describe the World Cup winner, but few probably do him full justice.
The bulk of Özil’s professional career was successful. He introduced himself to the world at Schalke and Werder Bremen, before ensuring his place among Europe’s top young talents with his performances at the 2010 World Cup. As a result, he earned himself a dream move to Real Madrid.
Özil played 3 successful seasons in Spain before moving onto Arsenal, becoming the most expensive German player ever at the time. He arguably became the best version of himself in London - although some may argue that he was better in Madrid.
Following Germany’s shock group stage exit at the 2018 World Cup, his career would begin to stall, partially due to growing injury problems and poor performances. During the 2018/19 season, head coach Unai Emery began to question Özil’s motivation, and that relationship crumbled following the Europa League Final loss at the hands of Chelsea.
At the start of the 2019/20 season, he was a victim of attempted robbery, and sat out a number of matchdays as a result. Throughout the next two seasons, he would continue to struggle on the pitch.
The final blow to his Arsenal career came when he was omitted from the squad after he publicly came out to criticize the treatment of Uyghur Muslims in China, a topic from which Arsenal publicly distanced themselves. Despite the setback, Özil would continue to fight for a place in the squad, but it wasn’t meant to be.
After two lackluster seasons for two different clubs in Turkey, Özil hung up his boots at 35 years of age. He cited recurring injuries as his reasoning.
You might be wondering, 35 years isn’t that young of an age to retire. You’re right. The thing about Özil, though, is that we arguably saw the last of his very best after 2018, when he was only 30. Because of this, it feels like we lost him way sooner.
Regardless, Özil is a legend, and easily one of the best German footballers of all time. He produced nothing but magic whenever he stepped onto the pitch, and we’re only left to imagine what more he could’ve achieved if he stayed fit and didn’t encounter the personal troubles that he faced.
A bit more of a classic example, Dutch striker Marco van Basten famously cut his career shorter than anybody on this list at age 28.
A prolific goalscorer, Van Basten was best known for his close ball control, attacking intelligence, heading ability and incredible strikes and volleys. He began his professional career at just 16 years of age with Ajax, and iconically came on as a substitute for Johann Cruyff to make his full debut at 17.
He spent six years at Ajax where he established himself as one of the best players in the world, before moving onto AC Milan in 1987. Unfortunately, the injury troubles began for Van Basten, primarily a recurring ankle problem that sidelined him for a total of 111 games throughout his 8 years with the Italian giants.
When he played, though, he was unstoppable. In November 1992, he scored four goals in a Champions League match, the first ever player to do so. In December of the same year, he was named FIFA World Player of the Year. He also won the Ballon d’Or (back when it was only awarded to European players) on three separate occasions at Milan.
Van Basten played his final match in a Champions League final loss against Marseille, where he again injured his ankle following a hard tackle from behind. This would eventually rule him out of the 1994 World Cup, and he eventually conceded in his rehabilitation efforts in August 1995, retiring at 28 years of age.
Despite only playing for 14 years at the professional level, Van Basten is still widely considered one of the best players of all time, and it only takes a quick YouTube video to see why.
Thankfully, we all witnessed the very best of Kun Agüero throughout his legendary Man City career. That needs no explaining.
Regardless, the football world mourned when the Argentine striker was forced into retirement after being diagnosed with a heart condition known as cardiac arrhythmia. He had only played 5 matches for Barcelona, four in La Liga and one in the Champions League.
Flash forward to now, and Agüero may even be a contender for a world’s unluckiest footballers” list if we ever made one.
Fortunately for him, he was able to be a part of Argentina’s major trophy drought, securing the 2021 Copa America in a 1-0 win against super-rivals Brazil.
But his luck started to run dry after that. Much of his reasoning behind his move to Barcelona was influenced by his desire to play with his best friend Lionel Messi at the club level. We all know what happened after that.
The cherry on top is that City have gone on to win the Champions League without him, a trophy that eluded him in his 10 years at the club.
Either way, Agüero’s legend status is nothing but solidified. It still would’ve been satisfying to see him play a full season or two with the Blaugrana.
All footballers dream of a fairy tale ending to a stellar, fruitful career.
Eden Hazard was the recipient of the exact opposite.
The Belgian’s talent needs no explaining, so I won’t even bother getting into that. For most of his Chelsea career, he kept up pace with the likes of Messi, Ronaldo and Neymar when it comes to being considered one of the best of this generation.
He’d always been someone touted as a top candidate to win the Ballon d’Or - if it wasn’t already in the hands of the Portuguese or Argentine - and it seemed like if it were to happen at some point, it would be at Real Madrid.
But as we all know, the $114m move would not amount to anything.
It all started when Hazard arrived at training camp out of shape, and he was blasted in the media as a result. He would go on to endure a slow start to his Madrid career before succumbing to an ankle injury in a Champions League group match against PSG.
Heavy competition for the left wing spot by Vinícius Jr. didn’t help Hazard’s already crumbling odds, either.
At the start of the 2022/23 season, Hazard was reportedly ready to turn his Madrid career around, but that motivation never led to much. He later reached an agreement to mutually terminate his contract at the end of the season.
To put Hazard’s Madrid career in perspective, he made only 76 appearances across four seasons with Los Blancos, many of which were off the bench. In this time, he missed 80+ games for both club and country.
Three months following his departure from Madrid, Hazard announced his retirement on October 10, 2023.
Oh, what could’ve been. At least he got a Champions League medal.