The 2022 World Cup in Qatar looks set to be the final swansong for a number of legendary players that have defined the modern era of football.
Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo look like they’ve got one chance to finally get their hands on the one major trophy that’s always evaded them, but they’re not the only iconic players that look likely to play in their last World Cup.
There are some incredible players from footballing powerhouses like France, Spain, Germany, Brazil and Belgium that are on track to bow out of the international game after Qatar.
Here are 11 all-time greats we can’t wait to see one last time on the biggest stage of all.
The legendary Argentinian finally lifted silverware with the national team last summer at the Copa America – and it looks as though Qatar 2022 will be his last chance to win the biggest one of all.
La Albiceleste came oh so close in Brazil in 2014 before looking a total shambles in Russia four years ago under Jorge Sampaoli.
There looks to be more balance and defensive solidity to them with pragmatic coach Lionel Scaloni at the helm, with a platform for Messi to make the difference.
He was the top scorer and top assister at the Copa America in 2021, with a direct hand in all of Argentina’s goals. Replicate that formula in Qatar and they have an outside chance.
“I don’t know what I will do after the World Cup. I am thinking about what is coming. After Qatar, I will have to reassess many things,” Argentina’s all-time top scorer and appearance-maker said.
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Before Ronaldo’s international debut in 2004, Portugal had only qualified for six major tournaments. Since then, he’s helped them reach 10 in a row – five World Cups and five European Championships – while scoring a ridiculous 117 goals in 189 appearances.
Whisper it but it looks as though the all-time top goalscorer in international football might finally be slowing down.
Manchester United have decided that Ronaldo is more of a hindrance than a help and there are also increasingly the same murmurings within Portugal – where he’s understandably seen as a god.
He’ll be 41 come the 2026 World Cup in North America and even for him, it’s a stretch to imagine he’ll still be going at the top level then.
A MASSIVE goal for Portugal!
Cristiano Ronaldo's cheeky nutmeg pass finds Bruno Fernandes who finishes emphatically to give Portugal the lead!
— Sky Sports Football (@SkyFootball) March 29, 2022
The only man not named Messi or Ronaldo to win the Ballon d’Or since 2007, Modric’s 2018 award was largely thanks to his brilliant performances to help Croatia upset the odds and reach the World Cup final in 2018.
The four-time Champions League winner showed he’s still got it at 37 with a key role in Real Madrid’s comeback victory over PSG in the Champions League last season, and reports suggest that he’ll sign a one-year contract extension to remain at the Bernabeu next season.
No one in the history of Croatia has more caps than their current captain and greatest-ever player.
Benzema has arguably peaked at the age of 34. You only need to look at the way the 2022 Ballon d’Or winner fired Madrid to the La Liga title and Champions League last season, or how he destroyed PSG with that hat-trick.
It’s almost as if he’s making up for lost time, having played second fiddle to Ronaldo for years, while exiled from the France camp for… uh, reasons we best not go into.
Having played no part in Les Bleus’ 2018 World Cup triumph, he’s now back in the fold and will be desperate to get his hands on the last big trophy he’s yet to win.
France are gunning to become the first side to win back-to-back World Cups since Brazil in 1962. When you look at the squad, and particularly the form of Benzema and Kylian Mbappe, they’ve got every chance.
Sergio Ramos hasn’t officially retired from international football, but considering he missed out on their Euro 2020 squad and has made just two league starts in the last 12 months, it doesn’t look as though he factors into Luis Enrique’s plans for Qatar.
That leaves Busquets as the last man standing from Spain’s 2010 World Cup-winning squad. He was establishing himself as one of the best midfielders in the world back then. Now 34, he’s a wily veteran entering his twilight years.
“I can still help and still have one more year on my contract. I know that I’m 33. I hope I can go to the World Cup, but we’ll have to see how the next few months go,” Busquets told Barcelona’s official website last season.
“I’d find it very hard to go elsewhere in Europe and play for a team that’s chasing the same things as Barça. I am too much of a Culer. I can only really see myself going to play in a different continent.”
“After retirement I would like to try coaching. I’ll get my licence and try to put together the right staff. I like to think that I’ll be offered the chance.”
He’ll be 38 at the Qatar World Cup but try betting against him shepherding Brazil’s backline in December.
Ask any Chelsea fan and they’ll tell you he’s still an absolute Rolls Royce of a centre-back.
Lewandowski is the likeliest player on this list to prove us wrong at the 2026 World Cup.
He’ll be 37 by then, but when you look at the shape he’s in – and quite how lethal he remains in front of goal – you wouldn’t bet against him following in Ronaldo’s footsteps by continuing into his late thirties.
But the Poland icon – their captain, all-time top scorer and appearance-maker – will have to get there, which isn’t a given when you consider the rest of the Poland squad. And four years is a long time in football.
Yet to score a World Cup goal, he’ll be aiming to put that right in Qatar.
Toni Kroos has retired from international football, while Thomas Muller could conceivably still be turning out for Die Mannschaft in 2026.
That leaves Neuer as the only icon from Germany’s 2014 World Cup victory in Brazil set to hang up his boots after Qatar. He’ll be 40 at the next tournament.
One of the greatest and most decorated goalkeepers in history, Neuer won a 10th successive Bundesliga title with Bayern last year – a stint that includes two trebles – and he’ll be aiming to win a second World Cup with his country after his role in their group stage humiliation in 2018.
Belgium’s golden generation are gradually ebbing away.
Vincent Kompany and Thomas Vermaelen have already retired, while Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld’s days appear numbered. At least Thibaut Courtois, Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku could conceivably keep delivering the goods for the Red Devils for the 2026 cycle.
But sadly it looks distinctly improbable that current captain Hazard will still be great come the 48-team tournament in the USA, Mexico and Canada.
He’s only 31, but three years of injury hell at Real Madrid appear to have taken their toll. Let’s hope he can roll back the years and rediscover his best Chelsea form this winter.
Luis Suarez & Edinson Cavani
The attacking duo were up-and-coming whippersnappers at the 2010 World Cup when they played a supporting role to Golden Boot winner Diego Forlan as Uruguay punched above their weight to reach the semi-finals in South Africa.
Fast forward 12 years and Suarez and Cavani are now in that Forlan veteran stage. 2022 will be their fourth successive World Cup, and surely their last. In that time they’ve enjoyed incredibly prolific and successful club careers at some of Europe’s biggest clubs.
They’re now Uruguay’s all-time top scorers – Suarez top on 68 goals, Cavani second with 56 – and the World Cup represents the last tournament to conquer after their starring roles in 2011 Copa America win.
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