An unusual summer looms as several of Europe's blue chip brigade are put out to pasture.
In a congested summer schedule, that features a European Championships and an Olympics, there is a danger that the departures of some of football’s modern greats may pass largely unnoticed. Titans of the game that will soon be put out to pasture, or have opted to pursue one final lucrative contract before finally hanging up their boots. Raul Gonzalez Blanco would certainly fall under the latter category.
Having racked up a record 741 appearances, six La Liga titles and three Champions League titles for Real Madrid, scoring a record 323 goals in the process, Raul has been an overwhelming success since joining Schalke two years ago. A total of 19 goals in 51 games during his maiden Bundesliga campaign has been improved upon this term with 20 goals in 46 outings thus far, in a free role behind the formidable Klaas-Jan Huntelaar.
Having scored a mere five goals in his final season at Madrid, critics were quick to write off Raul and a lucrative spell in the United States or Qatar was predicted, he instead opted for the lure of Champions League football in Gelsenkirchen. Keen to extend his current deal, which has been heavily subsidised by Real Madrid, by a further year, Raul recently announced that he will be departing in the summer, aged 35. The likes of USA and Asia have once again been mooted, a suitable barometer for his impact at the club would be Schalke’s plan to retire his No7 shirt indefinitely.
Didier Drogba, a relative late starter in footballing terms, is still ploughing his way through opposition defences, having celebrated his 34th birthday last month. He recently surpassed 100 goals for Chelsea and rejected the club’s offer of a one-year extension in November. His agent Thierno Seydi confirmed to The Sun that the Ivorian will: “go where he is offered the most money” and at present, that looks to be the tax free, £130,000-a-week on offer at Shanghai Shenhua, now managed by former team-mate Nicolas Anelka. Having plundered the winner against Barcelona recently, he clearly still has plenty to offer at the highest level, despite his diminishing powers.
Alessandro Del Piero is Juventus’ record appearance holder (441) and goal scorer (289) and has been known to rouse the odd child from a coma in his spare time, yet the Turin giants have announced that his 19th campaign will be his last. Club president Andrea Agnelli confirmed the news at a shareholders meeting, announcing: "The unique link between the old Juventus and the new Juve is our captain, Alessandro Del Piero”. Agnelli added: “ He wanted to stay with us for one more year, and this will be his last season wearing the black-and-white jersey."
Del Piero reacted to the unexpected news by revealing to Vanity Fair that: “Angelli's remarks surprised me.” Regarding the remainder of his playing career, he added: "I cannot imagine my future, it is a huge change and it scares me a little bit, because it is like leaving your home a second time.” A class act on and off the field, he deserves so much better and there has been a public outcry for a contract extension. Del Piero responded by netting in the Coppa Italia against Milan and the subsequent league game against fierce rivals Juventus, he now his 318 career goals, needing one more to surpass Roberto Baggio.
Michael Ballack may have been a comparable influence on German football, but a spiky demeanour has long polarised opinion of the classy midfielder and his fall from grace, at domestic and international level, is in danger of undermining his legacy. As Jogi Low ushered in a new and exciting generation of German talent, the hope was that Ballack would jump before he was pushed, but the offer of an international testimonial was rejected as “Capitano” took exception. His return to Bayer has been a disappointment, with Leverkusen’ CEO, Wolfgang Holzauser, claiming that “Project Ballack” had failed. He is also believed to be unpopular in the dressing room, but many former team mates have spoken out in his defence and his agent has claimed that his client has been “made a scapegoat.” 36 in September, his future also remains unclear.
AC Milan, the footballing equivalent of a glue factory in recent years, have been quietly turning over their playing squad and a raft of senior players are subsequently approaching the end of their current deals this year. The Rossoneri are keen to retain, Massimo Ambrosini, Gennaro Gattuso and Alessandro Nesta, but the likes of Clarence Seedorf, a four-time Champions League winner, and Filippo Inzaghi, second only to Raul regarding goals scored in European competition, remain in limbo. Inzaghi, 38, is believed to be of interest to Atalanta, while Seedorf has been linked with a reunion with Ronaldinho at Flamengo and several Bundesliga clubs.
For clubs in need of experience to supplement a youthful squad, or a wealthy backer’s pet project short on showbiz and glamour, there will shortly be a veritable feast of legends to feast upon. Tears will be shed for some, while sighs of relief will be exhaled for others, as some of the game’s true giants encounter the twilight of their illustrious careers.
Picture comes courtesy of the excellent Kamp Seedorf.