Over the course of 2017 the football world has said goodbye to a number of legends who have hung up their boots for the final time and retired from the professional game.
It seems only right to honour these heroes, World Cup and Champions League winners among them, by recognising their contribution over the years. Here is a look back at 11 of the players we will miss strutting their stuff on the hallowed turf.
GK: Victor Valdes. It is remarkable that a three-time Champions League winner like Victor Valdes made only one appearance at a major tournament for Spain. Equally astonishing is that the Barcelona great ended his career in the reserves at Manchester United before short and unmemorable spells with Standard Liege and Middlesbrough. Valdes always stood in the shadow of Iker Casillas, never receiving the same status or acclaim despite being awarded the Zamora trophy on five separate occasions. Knowing the importance Pep Guardiola places in the goalkeeper position and how picky he can be about it, Valdes’ role in his great Barcelona side must not be underestimated.
RB: Alvaro Arbeloa: Jose Mourinho loved Alvaro Arbeloa for the simple reason he was always a seven out of 10. You knew exactly what you were going to get with him. Not nine out of 10 one week and four the next, always seven. Managers crave that kind of reliability. Mourinho wasn’t the only great coach to trust Arbeloa. He won La Decima with Carlo Ancelotti, the European Championship with Luis Aragones and was naked in the dressing room when the Queen of Spain came to congratulate Vicente del Bosque’s team on winning the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Forever welcome in Liverpool, whenever he’s with Xabi Alonso, they’re as likely to speak Scouse as they are Spanish.
CB: Martin Demichelis. Remember the lengths Manchester City went to in order to sign Martin Demichelis? He had just moved from Malaga to Atletico Madrid on a free transfer. Yes, that Atletico Madrid, trained by Diego Simeone who we can all agree knows a defender when he sees one. Eager to please new coach Manuel Pellegrini, City immediately offered £4.5 million to reunite the Chilean with his old Argentine centre-back. Demichelis traded places again and added another league title to the six he won with River Plate and Bayern Munich. A World Cup and Champions League finalist, what everyone really wants to know about Demichelis is how he kept his long locks so luscious? Apparently it was olive oil.
LB: Philipp Lahm. The ultimate Bayern player walked away from the game with a year (and €12m) still left on his contract. Lahm’s standards have always been high and the idea of not being able to meet them at 33 years of age persuaded him to hang up his boots. He had won everything, captaining Bayern to Champions League glory and then Germany at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Lahm’s ability to play full-back and in midfield simultaneously towards the end of his career was the reflection of a footballer with an off the scale IQ. Guardiola said he was the most intelligent player he ever coached. Bayern were surprised Lahm turned down their offer to become the club’s sporting director. Uli Hoeness’ preference was for Gladbach’s Max Eberl and Lahm presumably knew his heart wasn’t in it, but he’ll be back. German football could still do with Lahm’s beautiful mind.
CM: Frank Lampard. An A* in GCSE Latin; one of the highest Mensa scores in Britain; children’s book author. It reads slightly different to John Terry’s “Captain, Leader, Legend” banner at Stamford Bridge. But Frank Lampard, the player most associated with Chelsea after Terry, was a cerebral footballer and an outstanding one to boot. Lampard scored the goals away to Bolton that ended the Blues’ 50-year wait for a league title and captained them in Terry’s absence to Champions League glory in 2012. The Blues’ all-time top scorer, only Alan Shearer, Wayne Rooney and Andy Cole have more Premier League goals to their name, a remarkable feat for a midfield player.
CM: Xabi Alonso. Football in 2018 isn’t going to be anywhere near as good looking as it has been over the last 15 years. Among ex-players, midfielders tend to make the best managers. Irrespective of that Alonso has served quite the apprenticeship. Just look at the coaches he’s played under: Del Bosque, Mourinho, Rafa Benitez, Ancelotti, Guardiola… Is it any wonder that there is so much anticipation around what Alonso chooses to do next?
CM: Andrea Pirlo. Quintessentially Italian, the bel paese found itself reflected in Andrea Pirlo’s football. There was style, elegance, a sense of invention, great design, the pursuit of beauty, art. He was a Michelangelo who painted with his feet. Known as a regista in Italy — the director whose imagination makes the screenplay come alive, everywhere else the position is known as the Pirlo role: a measure of his impact.
AM: Kaka. “The best nobody in the world.” That’s what Ancelotti used to jokingly call Kaka. No one had heard of him when he moved to Italy; they made fun of his name. Ancelotti thought he was getting a player like his old Roma teammate Toninho Cerezo. “Shouldn’t you be at school?” Ancelotti asked Kaka on his first day at Milanello. He’ll never forget what happened next. A jet-lagged Kaka took part in a training session and Rino Gattuso had a welcome present for him. He wanted to see what Kaka was made of and leave a tackle on him, but the Brazilian bounced off Gattuso and then caught Alessandro Nesta out with a 25-yard through ball. “The heavens opened,” Ancelotti recalled. God had sent him a Ballon d’Or winner, the last player to receive the award not named Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi. He wasn’t a nobody anymore. Expect Kaka back at Milan soon.
AM: Francesco Totti It has got to be up there as one of the most emotional football moments of 2017. Francesco Totti’s retirement was a tear-jerker. “It’s not easy to switch off the light,” he said. “Now I’m afraid.” It’s still strange to see Totti absent from the Roma side. A generation of fans don’t know any different…. they grew up on bread and Totti. Now a director at the club he loves, it must be said Roma’s new sporting director Monchi deserves great credit for handling the transition. His first job was to tell Totti the time had come to start a new chapter of his career. Totti wasn’t ready to quit, but Monchi dealt with it so sensitively that in the end the player came round. Keeping him at Roma, albeit in a different role, could go down as his most important signing for the club.
AM: Antonio Cassano Honest to a fault, Cassano admits: “I have realised 30 percent of my potential… 40 percent at maximum.” If he had realised it all, the game down here with us mere mortals would not have been a challenge. “I’d be playing on the moon by myself.” His talent was really out of this world. But talent isn’t enough on its own and Cassano realises that. “You’ve got to make sacrifices if you want to do great things,” he said. Like resisting the temptation to call up room service for a plate of pastries as he used to do in Madrid. Cassano should have been the next great Italian No. 10 after Totti, Baggio and Del Piero. What a shame he didn’t make the most of his undoubted ability.
ST: Dirk Kuyt Talk about going out at the top. A Dirk Kuyt hat trick ended up clinching Feyenoord — his boyhood club — their first league title in 18 years. The Netherlands had a good old chuckle in 2015 when Kuyt returned to his homeland with the express intention of ending Feyenoord’s drought in the Eredivisie, but he had the last laugh. A firm fan favourite wherever he went, Kuyt was the consummate big game player. Above all, he ran his socks off. People at Liverpool still talk about how he would lap his teammates on training runs around Melwood.
James covers the Italian Serie A and European football for ESPN FC Follow him on Twitter @JamesHorncastle.