Top Tenner: Players who retired on top
While Steven Gerrard may have wished for more from this summer, you can't do much better than Philipp Lahm in retiring from international football as a world champion. We decided to look at some other stars who went out at the top of their game.
10) Zinedine Zidane
It might seem odd to include a great player whose last ever game in football ended in him being sent off, but that game was the World Cup final. Zidane's disagreement with Marco Materazzi perhaps soured the final minutes of perhaps the most gifted and graceful career this generation has ever seen.
But it was also the last game of a tournament in which Zidane had displayed those extraordinary gifts, sometimes sporadically, but most emphatically in the quarterfinal win over Brazil, in which the old master rolled back the years and ran the game himself. Zidane, who had been tempted out of international retirement by a desperate Raymond Domenech, won the Golden Ball in 2006, and while his last act was not ideal, it's difficult to say he didn't go out at the top.
9) David Beckham
There are, of course, different definitions of 'on top'. David Beckham's career as a genuine force in professional football ended in 2003 when he left Real Madrid for LA Galaxy. MLS is not the retirement league that many suggest it is, but it is very clearly at a lower standard to the European football that Beckham had been playing, and although there were a couple of spells with AC Milan thrown in, his career was more or less winding down from 2007. However, Beckham probably remains the most famous footballer in the world, despite him not actually being one anymore, and thus was his life for the final few years of his career. The end was suitably extravagant, substituted off from his last game for PSG, with pageantry and acclaim aplenty, the most famous man in his sport ushered into retirement in suitable fashion.
8) Manolo Sanchis
By 2001, the ill-conceived Zidanes y Pavones plan of Florentino Perez was well underway, Luis Figo having already been signed from Barcelona and Zidane on his way. That didn't leave much room for the old guard, in particular Manuel Sanchis, the stalwart central defender who had won pretty much all there was to win over 18 years with Real Madrid. Sanchis retired in 2001, having lifted the Spanish league title the year after doing the same in the Champions League, bringing his grand total of major trophies to 14, and along with his dad Manuel Sanchis Martinez, also becoming just the second ever father-son duo to win the European Cup.
7) Hong Myung-bo
'Always leave them wanting more,' is the old stage motto, but an even better trick is to bow out when you know there is no more to come. Unless something extraordinary changes in the structure of world football in the next few years, the greatest achievement by the South Korean national side will be their progression to the semifinals of the 2002 World Cup.
There is no realistic way of topping that, and this was something Hong Myung-bo, their best player and charismatic captain, knew, retiring from international football straight after the tournament despite being a relatively sprightly 33, and having a couple more years in club football ahead of him. Of course, he spoiled all that slightly by coming back to manage South Korea rather unsuccessfully at the recent World Cup and leaving his post after the tournament. But you can't have everything, right?
While his club career carried on for a few years with Santos and included an extended post-script in the U.S., Pele's international career came to an end shortly after his greatest triumph with Brazil. It's perhaps cheating slightly to include him on this list, because he did rather curiously appear in four friendlies after the 1970 World Cup, but few other players can say their last significant involvement for their country was scoring in the World Cup final, then setting up perhaps the most lauded goal in the history of the competition. Pele could quite easily have continued a few more years with Brazil, but after a finale like that, why spoil things by carrying on?
5) Philipp Lahm
In some ways, it's curious that half the Germany side that have just won the World Cup haven't joined Lahm in retiring from international football. How exactly are they going to top lifting that trophy after handing out a historic shellacking to the hosts? It's so difficult to create a dynasty in international football these days that, despite the collection of brilliant players, the chances of Germany going on to totally dominate the game are fairly slim.
They will certainly be poorer without Lahm, who in Brazil was their strongest player in at least three different positions, and Joachim Low's primary dilemma was identifying the best second option at full-back and holding midfield. He may have more to win with Bayern Munich, but the last time we will see Lahm in a Germany shirt will be him holding the World Cup aloft. Not too bad.
4) Ferenc Puskas
Some players don't finish their careers with the list of medals that their talents deserve, but you couldn't say that of Puskas. Ten league titles and three European Cups are just the highlights on his roll of honour, and the last of those baubles came in his last year as a player. In truth Puskas's career was winding down in the last two years of his career (he made 26 league appearances over those two seasons), but he still very much contributed, scoring five goals in three games (four in one ostentatious display of 'I've still got it' against Feyenoord in the early rounds) as Real won their sixth European Cup in its first 11 years. He didn't play in the final, as Real beat Partizan Belgrade, but a man of his talents deserved to go out with the biggest prize club football can offer.
- Video: The world's sporting stars pay tribute to Lahm
- Top Tenner: Breakout stars
- Report: Steven Gerrard retires from international football
3) Johan Cruyff
Sometimes temperamental geniuses don't have the careers they deserve. Their maverick natures get in the way, they say or do something stupid and a chance floats away on the breeze. Not Cruyff though, who annoyed almost as many people as he won medals throughout his career, and considering he won 10 league titles, three European Cups and three Ballon d'Ors, that's a lot of irked characters along the way.
The final act of his career was one almost entirely inspired by spite, after Ajax didn't offer him a new contract at the end of his second spell with the club. Cruyff reacted by signing for their great rivals Feyenoord, and despite an 8-2 defeat when the two clubs met early in the season, Cruyff had the last laugh as his new side pipped his old to the league title, and he promptly retired. The brilliant career of a man who delighted in agitation, ended with his middle finger raised high. Perfect.
2) Frank Rijkaard
While he is of course regarded as one of the great players of his generation, Rijkaard's career is a little underplayed, possibly because of his success as Barcelona manager, or perhaps because he was often seen as a 'lesser' part of a collective. He was perhaps the least-lauded of the three Dutchmen who became heroes at AC Milan, with Marco van Basten and Ruud Gullit getting more headlines, while he was a little overshadowed by the brilliant young generation upon his return to Ajax in 1993. Still, it was that young generation of Clarence Seedorf, Edgar Davids, Patrick Kluivert et al that helped Rijkaard go out in the finest style, with two league titles and his last game in professional football being the 1995 Champions League final, as Ajax beat Milan 1-0 thanks to a Kluivert goal. Quite a way to go out.
1) Eric Cantona
The musical legacies of Kurt Cobain, Jeff Buckley and Jimi Hendrix are secure because they died before they could make a duff album, before they could tail off into irrelevancy and taint their previous work. Not that they necessarily would have, just as Eric Cantona would not necessarily have spoiled what he meant to Manchester United fans if he'd carried on, but leaving the game aged 30, with little warning, in the summer of 1997, made sure of his legend. "He was born to play for United," Sir Alex Ferguson once said. "Some players, with respected and established reputations, are cowed and broken by the size and expectations. Not Eric. He swaggered in, stuck his chest out, raised his head and surveyed everything as if to ask: `I'm Cantona, how big are you? Are you big enough for me?'" Cantona retired with his final league title win, his sixth in seven years with United, Marseille and Leeds, melting into the forest like a mysterious stranger from out of town who arrived, cleaned things up then left abruptly. Because that's basically what he was.