You can see it in their eyes: that 1,000-yard stare and a creeping realisation wrestling with disbelief. For some, it is more explosive and overt, like Luis Suarez weeping on the substitutes’ bench, but for most it is a jarring full stop. For months, for years, you have urged your body on, often against its will — one more tournament, one more group stage, one more match, one more goal and then, before you know it, as the seconds tick away, one more useless, futile sprint …
Inside, part of you understands and has always understood. It’s gone and it’s done and life will never be the same. It is the numbness of loss, for your team first and foremost — all that effort, all those sacrifices — but also for yourself. This part of your life is over and you are confronting the finite nature of your own career. Perhaps I’m making it feel more profound than it really is, but I don’t know how else to describe that emptiness, that void.
For all the buzz and mayhem engulfing the business end of the World Cup, each match is now throwing up sad little endings. On social media, I had a giggle about Germany’s early departure from Qatar — come on, I’m English, and after all these years we’re surely allowed a bit of schadenfreude — but I also recognised something in the way Thomas Muller, 33 now and with 121 caps behind him, traipsed from the pitch.
It’s the same with Gareth Bale of Wales, with Suarez, with a few of Belgium’s “Golden Generation”, who are all going home. I’m not trying to push any of those players — great players, some of them — into premature retirement, but it’s the cloudiness of getting older, questioning all the things you once took for granted, feeling every single knock and ache in your legs. No more certainties, aside from all this future stretching in front of you.
I played in one World Cup. England didn’t qualify in 1994 — I was 23 going on 24 and had scored 31 goals in the Premier League in the season leading up to it — but by the time France 1998 came along I thought I was invincible. When our last-16 game against Argentina went to penalties and David Batty’s was saved, it was an horrendous feeling because after reaching the semi-final of Euro 96 (where we lost to Germany; see what I mean?), we all felt we could go one step further.
In that, I’m sure we were similar to Gareth Southgate’s England squad now. Having reached a semi four years ago and the final of the last European Championship, they will wholeheartedly think they’re in the tournament to win it. As an elite athlete, you carry that mentality anyway; if you didn’t believe, you would walk away. When it doesn’t happen and that prize is taken away from a professional sportsperson, a fierce competitor, it’s agony. It hits hard.
Back in 1998, I honestly thought I would carry on playing until I was 40. You have that tunnel vision as a footballer, where every day is mapped out for you and split into training sessions building up to game day and on and on, season after season, but it’s also the arrogance of youth. You don’t prepare for the worst, you don’t think anything bad will ever happen to you, you bounce off any setback. You assume it will always be like this.
By 2000 — only two years later — my race was run for England. Reality had set in. By then I’d had two really serious injuries, ankle and cruciate ligaments, and I knew within myself I was a yard of pace shorter. Ah man, it was a horrible decision and unbelievably difficult, because I was giving up the England captaincy, something I’d dreamt about as a kid, but I knew I couldn’t do two jobs to the best of my ability any more.
I had this fear, too. Maybe it was about control, maybe it was a bit of vanity or self-confidence, but I couldn’t bear the thought of Old Father Time, or anybody else, making the decision on my behalf. I didn’t want anybody to tell me, ‘you’re no longer good enough’. So I took it into my own hands and announced before Euro 2000 that I would be retiring from international football at the end of the tournament.
It turned out to be a great decision, the right decision, because it got me six more years playing at the highest level with Newcastle United, without the extra travelling and training and the extra games and all the other stuff that happens on the periphery of representing England. If it was just about playing games, I might have been able to get through it, but it wasn’t. During those breaks, I had to rest up and get my body right.
As it happened, I was asked to come back under Sven-Goran Eriksson, but that only emphasised I’d made the right call. I was playing well and scoring goals for my club, but both would have been diluted if I’d spread myself more thinly. I was always of the opinion ‘get off the stage while people are shouting for more’. I did that with England and I’d like to think I did it with Newcastle, too, albeit I was on my last legs towards the end.
In that sense, I had already started to make peace with the notion of retirement ahead of Belgium and the Netherlands in 2000. I was able to get my mind around knowing that whatever happened it was going to be my last tournament and that nothing and nobody was going to change my mind. A bit of closure was already taking place inside my own head and maybe that helped when disappointment hit us like a sledgehammer. Maybe. Maybe not.
It was the third game of the group stage. We’d lost our opener against Portugal and then beaten Germany 1-0 in Charleroi and although, unlike two years earlier, we knew we didn’t have the best team in the competition, we were on a bit of a roll and our belief was pretty good. There was no reason we couldn’t go deep or even win it. Like I said, at that level you have to think like that, otherwise what’s the point?
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At half-time against Romania we weren’t in bad nick. We needed a point to qualify for the knockout phase and although we’d made a ropey start and gone behind, I’d converted a penalty and then Michael Owen took us ahead just before the break. But when the whistle went, it was a 3-2 defeat in which I had strained and failed to meet a David Beckham free kick. And then it’s gone, over, and for a little while there is nothing except nothing. Handshakes, applaud, the trudge.
The dressing room was deathly, everybody sitting with heads in their hands, but until that precise moment you’ve been on a ride, you’re still out there, you’re still pumped with adrenaline and so it doesn’t hit home until a couple of days later. Forty-eight hours on, heading back on the plane or already reunited with the family, you compute what’s taken place. Part of the fabric of my existence, something I’d strived for, was finished. I was 29.
I had a few dreams as a boy: play football for Newcastle, represent my country, walk out at Wembley. All of a sudden, you realise, “Fucking hell, I’m never playing for England again.” I’m not angling for sympathy, just trying to explain. I was lucky, blessed. I had an eight-year international career, I won 63 caps and scored 30 goals and, if at the end of all that, I didn’t win anything on the biggest stage, well, exactly how many people do?
At the same time, it is a story of mortality: you dream, you live it, the dream ends and you’re not a kid any more. You’re getting old, for a footballer, anyway. There’s a tiny part of you that doesn’t mind the stress and pressure no longer being there and another small bit that looks forward to a holiday, but the overall theme is desolation. It’s “we worked so hard for this. I worked so hard for this, 20 years. This buzz, the high, the anticipation, everything else that goes with being at a tournament like this, I’ll never get back”.
And that is your buzz. For the great players, the biggest players, it’s that buzz they need and feed on; they crave playing in the biggest tournaments and to be the star. Without it, their star wanes. Other players come through, that’s the way of life and football, a constant regeneration of talent, but there’s a poignancy to the likes of Muller, Bale and the others going and taking their flickering bit of light with them.
There will be others, too. There always are, but Qatar has already proved an unusual, bonkers tournament, with its lack of preparation time levelling the playing field and giving the outsiders more of a chance. Anyone can beat anyone. And so everybody balances on a knife-edge.
We have seen the narrative around Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, two living, ageing legends, each time they play; how much more of this will there be, can they go back to the well one last time, will they rescue their teams, can they inspire and, for all they have achieved, they carry it with a sense of mania. For a lucky few, the dream remains forever golden. For most, it just ends. Trust me, it hurts like hell. You can see it in our eyes.
(Top image: Sam Richardson)