Time to say goodbye as World Cup concludes

AU revoir Zizou. Adeus Luis Figo, Roberto Carlos and maybe Ronaldo. Goodbye Claudio Reyna. Auf wiedersehen Oliver Kahn and ciao Alessandro Del Piero.

If we don’t see you again David Beckham, it’s been grand.

As soccer’s greatest spectacle ends, so do the World Cup careers of many of the game’s biggest names. Some, like Zinedine Zidane and Roberto Carlos, have already said this was it. Others, like Beckham and Ronaldo, are already starting to slow and aren’t likely to be around when the World Cup kicks off in South Africa four years from now.

“It just makes sense to stop now,” Reyna, the US captain for the last eight years, said in announcing his retirement after the Americans were eliminated. “I felt in two years I could still be playing. But four years I think is a little bit too much, so it’s best just to stop now.”

Saying goodbye is a World Cup ritual, even if it’s not really the end. Most veteran players go back to their clubs for another couple of years, and some even stay on with their national teams for a season or two.

But soccer players have short shelf lives, and the gap between World Cups is a lot of time on that shelf.

Players also want to leave while they’re still at the top of their game.

The 34-year-old Zidane was so masterful in leading France to the final that he looked as if he could win a fourth FIFA player of the year award.

“When you see him play like that, it’s others who should be stopping, not him,” France defender Lilian Thuram said after Zidane powered the French to victory over Brazil in the quarter-finals.

“As I’m almost 34, it’s hard for me to keep playing at this level, and it takes a lot of energy,” said Pavel Nedved, who came out of international retirement to play for the Czech Republic in

Germany. “But I’m happy I can be useful and I’ll help till I am able to, though my days are coming to an end.”

Zidane and Nedved were among a handful of stars who came out of retirement to help their countries qualify for the World Cup, making it clear they were going straight back home afterwards.

Others, like Figo and Mexico defender Claudio Suarez, made their plans known before the World Cup began.

And still others said their goodbyes after their teams did. Japanese star Hidetoshi Nakata announced his retirement early last week, and Roberto Carlos called it quits after Brazil’s elimination.

“My history with the ‘selecao’ is finished,” he said.

After Germany beat Portugal in the third-place game, there was a race to get out the door. Figo said again he was finished, and Pauleta, Portugal’s all-time top scorer, said he was too. Kahn took off his gloves, threw them into the stands and said that was enough.

“It was a beautiful time, but you have to know when it’s over,” Kahn said after the game.

For some it’s obvious, but they just haven’t said so yet.

Though Beckham said he still wants to play for England, he is already showing signs of aging at 31. Ditto for Ronaldo.

American Brian McBride is 34, and this was his last World Cup, even if he hasn’t said as much.

Michael Ballack is almost 30, bruised and beaten down, and sounded very much like a man who knew he’d played in his last World Cup after Germany lost to Italy in the semi-finals.

“It just isn’t meant to be for me,” Ballack said, choking back tears.

It’s not just the thirtysomethings who are saying their goodbyes, either. Italy’s playmaker Francesco Totti is only 29, but he has indicated he’ll retire from the national team after the World Cup so he can focus on playing for Roma.

“There’s a 90% chance he’s going to retire,” Italy coach Marcello Lippi said. “You have to respect what people feel in their hearts and minds.”

And trust that they know when it’s the right time to say goodbye.

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