The forgotten XI
About a month ago, news of Mesut Özil’s imminent retirement surfaced. A surprise, sure. But was it the unusual mid-season decision or the acknowledgment that he remains a professional footballer?
Although it seems Özil, 34, is not retiring at this point – his representatives denied the rumours, and for now, his contract has not been terminated – it still feels like a sudden fall from grace for a player once touted as the best playmaker around, a bona-fide superstar and a World Cup winner with Germany.
Casual football fans saw him excel at multiple international tournaments and win titles for both Real Madrid and Arsenal, spreading passes to strikers like Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema, and Alexis Sanchez. What they didn’t see, however, were the difficult, tough, grind-it-out years.
Özil’s last game for Germany was at the 2018 World Cup and his last Premier League game on March 7th, 2020. Despite joining Turkish giants Fenerbahce after leaving Arsenal, he never made it back to the Champions League either. He is still playing – just far, far away from the limelight.
Everyone has a different story. Some, like Robert Lewandowski, Luka Modric, or Thiago Silva, adapt and stay at the top. Some lose the hunger and decide to leave for a big payday or quit altogether, while others are left with no choice but to drift into football oblivion. Much like Özil and the next 11 players, lined up in a 3-4-1-2 formation.
Goalkeeper Diego Lopez | Although Lopez is admirably still on the books for La Liga minnows Real Vallecano, he first signed for Real Madrid … in the 20th century! When that did not work out at first, he moved to Villarreal and made his sole Spain appearance in 2009. In 2013, he was invited to rejoin Real Madrid by then-coach Jose Mourinho. He was 32 then, already a veteran.
With Iker Casillas injured, Lopez duly became first-choice and played a total of 62 games in 2012/13 and 2013/14, even with Iker returning to full fitness and Carlo Ancelotti replacing Mourinho. Lopez helped Real to La Decima, their tenth Champions League trophy, and then moved on to AC Milan where he was soon benched for a teenager named Gianluigi Donnarumma. Even that was seven years ago.
Centre-back Phil Jagielka | Good ol’ trustworthy Phil. Everton captain from 2013 to 2019, totalling 385 games for the club. 40 caps for England, including two major tournaments in 2012 and 2014. Surely he is retired by now?
Nope. After leaving Everton in 2019, Jagielka has played for Sheffield United, Derby County, and Stoke City, where he is still playing regularly at the age of 40. Stoke’s other regular centre-back Ben Wilmot was just six months old when Jagielka made his first-team debut as a youngster at Sheffield.
Centre-back Phil Jones | Described by Sir Alex Ferguson as one of Manchester United’s best-ever players ten years ago, Jones has had seriously bad luck due to recurring injuries and problems with fitness. His latest contract with United, signed in 2019, runs until this summer, but he has played just five times since January 2020 and was left out of the squad altogether for the 2022/23 season.
For someone who has represented England 27 times and been with the squad at three international tournaments, there still might be another chance on the cards somewhere else. After all, Jones is just 31 years of age.
Centre-back Dmytro Chyhrynskyi | After the all-conquering 2008/09 season, Barcelona head coach Pep Guardiola wanted another central defender and vouched for Chyhrynskyi, who had impressed for Shakhtar Donetsk. Barcelona spent 25 million euros to use him in just 14 games, before returning the long-haired defender to Shakhtar the next summer – for 10 million less.
Chyhrynskyi then barely played for Shakhtar due to injuries, tried out at Dnipro, and finally found a stable home in Greece. After five seasons with AEK Athens, he joined Ionikos, where he is still playing at 36. He has not represented Ukraine since 2011.
Winger Salomon Kalou | The fleet-footed winger from Ivory Coast joined Chelsea in 2006 and remained in London for six seasons, winning the Champions League, the Premier League, and several other titles. However, the 2012 Champions League final against Bayern Munich was his last game for Chelsea, as his contract was not extended.
Kalou moved on to first Lille (France) and later Hertha Berlin (Germany), so he remained in the top European leagues but rarely featured in international competitions. In the summer of 2020, Hertha fired him, and after a spell with Brazilian club Botafogo, he returned to Africa, now playing for Djiboutian champions Arta/Solar7 at the age of 37.
Defensive midfield Alex Song | Once a fierce rival in London, Alex Song is now a team-mate of Kalou at Arta/Solar7 in Djibouti. The midfielder is somewhat surprisingly two years younger, but after leaving Arsenal for Barcelona in 2012, his career spiralled out of control quickly when he should have reached his prime.
Since Song quit representing Cameroon to concentrate on club football in 2014, he had two stints on loan at West Ham, two forgettable years at Russian club Rubin Kazan, and then another two at Sion, barely avoiding relegation from the Swiss Super League. Since November 2020, he has played in Djibouti.
Defensive midfield Jack Rodwell | In November 2011, Rodwell made his senior England debut … by replacing Phil Jones. Much like his peer, the 31-year-old Rodwell has gone from boy wonder to wasted talent due to recurring injuries. But while Jones is still at United, Rodwell finds himself playing 17 000 kilometers away in Sydney.
After breaking through at Everton, he joined Manchester City just as they had won their first Premier League title in decades. Two seasons later he left for Sunderland, where they relegated back-to-back from the Premier League to League One. After turning down Blackburn’s contract offer and failing at Sheffield United, he moved to Sydney, where Rodwell has been playing since November 2021.
Winger Nani | A nimble, agile winger moving from Sporting Lisbon to Manchester United? While Cristiano Ronaldo became the ever-scoring muscular centre-forward we saw dominate everywhere during the past 15 years, Nani, who followed his route just four years later, developed into a more traditional winger.
He was a valued squad member for Sir Alex Ferguson, winning four Premier League titles and a Champions League, but fell out of favor when the legendary Scot left. Since 2014, he has played in Portugal, Turkey, Spain, Italy, the USA, and, currently, Australia. At 36, he has not featured in the Champions League since 2014 and for Portugal since 2017.
Attacking midfield Andres Iniesta | It has been five years since Iniesta said his goodbyes at Barcelona and camp Spain, but at 38, he continues to captain Vissel Kobe. After a career that yielded nine domestic titles, four Champions Leagues, two European Championships, and a World Cup, his time in Japan has gone under the radar.
His case speaks about love for football – despite having a lifetime contract with Barcelona, he walked away and seems to be enjoying his adventure in the Far East. Even when he spent four months on the treatment table after a bad thigh injury in 2021, he fought to return and play football again.
Striker Emmanuel Adebayor | In his day, Adebayor was a proper goal-getter who starred for Arsenal, Manchester City, and Tottenham. But his only trophy came during a brief loan spell with Real Madrid, and he never really seemed to settle. When he left Tottenham aged 31 in 2015, it felt like retirement was on the cards.
Think again. He spent six months at Crystal Palace before moving to Turkey and had a brief spell in Paraguay four years later. Now 39, Adebayor continues playing for Semassi, a club competing in the Togolese Championnat National. He even represented Togo until 2019!
Striker Roque Santa Cruz | When was Santa Cruz’s peak anyway? His stats fell short at Bayern Munich, where he never hit double figures in a season in eight attempts; after a terrific 2007/08 season for Blackburn and a forgettable one for newly-rich Manchester City, he spent four seasons in Spain, being a consistent presence for upsurging Malaga.
After popping up here and there for almost a decade, a 35-year-old Santa Cruz settled in his homeland Paraguay by joining Olimpia Asuncion in 2016. Five seasons later, he changed to Club Libertad, where he is still playing at age 41. The man made his professional debut 26 years ago and moved to Bayern in the summer of 1999!
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These are our picks, but of course, there are many more. Former PSG midfielder Jeremy Menez (35) is now in Reggina at Serie B; Euro 2008 winner Dani Güiza (42) plays for Rota, a team in Spain’s fourth division; 17-club-man Valeri Bojinov (37) earns a wage as the player-manager at Bulgarian second division Dobrudzha Dobrich.
There are also players like Bojan Krkic (32), Ricardo Quaresma (39), Hatem Ben Arfa (35), and Alexandre Pato (33), who are free agents yet to announce retirement. What a crazy, crazy world.