Along with Xabi Alonso and his hipster elegance, two icons of the modern game will be hanging up their boots this summer after decades of outstanding service.
Philipp Lahm was a Bayern man to the bone, a defender blessed with the tactical intelligence of a top coach and technique of a great player it was this special combination that hurt opponents through quiet assurance over a period of twelve years during which time he was instrumental in guiding his club to eight league titles. At some point next season a team-mate will play themselves into trouble, look up, and see he’s no longer there to save their skin. And they’ll freak out a little bit.
Francesco Totti was similarly a one-club man. Indeed for two and a half decades he was the personification of Roma for all its many wonders and failings. A shrewd and inventive number 10, Italy’s one time ‘golden boy’ grew up to be a gladiator and Serie A just won’t feel the same next year without his passion and conjuring for the Giallorossi.
There will understandably be a great deal of sadness all across Europe in the weeks to come when these genuine legends draw a veil on their distinguished careers but also no shortage of acclaim and appreciation too. After all, between them they accumulated well over a thousand games at the highest level for their respective clubs and countries. They fulfilled their potential before our very eyes and played out their dreams for us to share. Their journey has been our journey too and the fanfares to their farewells will be warm and heartfelt.
I fear though that this summer we will also see two other retirements only these won’t be individuals but teams and rather than a bowing out with an impressive body of work behind them they will be premature to say the least.
I honestly cannot recall the last occasion I was as invigorated and childishly excited by the emergence of an exceptional eleven as when I first witnessed this present Monaco team. And the same can very nearly be said also of Peter Bosz’s young Ajax side that have adventured their way (barring a semi-final second leg disaster) to a Europa League final. They have reminded me of certain truths that I had forgotten which I realise sounds very pretentious indeed but it’s true: they have. And the most prominent truth is that football, ultimately, is about this, watching them, wide-eyed and chuckling with glee as they playground show-off against Europe’s elite.
A result of a lucrative dismantling of a promising side and a serious investment in youth Monaco, under the expert man-management of coach Leonardo Jardim, have exploded into our consciousness this season with their relentless emphasis on attack and electric entertainment. Packed with superstars-in-the-making they have ripped into all-comers whether they be Metz or Manchester City scoring an astonishing 95 goals in Ligue 1 alone and that’s before we get to their Champions League exploits which have been your Ultimate Team on FIFA come to life.
As for Ajax they have similarly amazed while being imbued with youth only in their case to a quite ridiculous degree. The group that tore a very good Lyon side apart this week to all-but-guarantee a European final had an average age of 20.4 and all ingrained with a Cruyffian spirit to pass their way through difficulties with copious amounts of style.
Lord knows what these teams will be capable of in five years’ time as they collectively peak. And goodness knows how exhilarating it will be to witness their journey as they play out their dreams for us to share. Sadly we will never find out. Sadly it will only happen in our imagination.
Football is so different now to the days when teams were broken up in possession of silverware and already the vultures are circling. 100 million for Mbappe. 60 million for Dolberg. Bakayoko bound for Chelsea. And so on and so on until there will barely be anything left besides both clubs boasting a fortune in the bank to count as their legacies.
They will start again of course, with colossal funds at their disposal and flourishing youth academies, while the players individually will surely go on to achieve their greatness. It is us who miss out, us and much more so Monaco and Ajax fans who won’t get to experience the thrill and pride of a golden generation challenging for honours.
It is hard not to get all Jerry Maguire about it because we do indeed live in cynical times. This season Monaco and Ajax’s brilliance made me a believer again, a believer in something pure and good.
It was great while it lasted.