When Harry Kane went to shake hands with American midfielder Tyler Adams before kick-off, he was facing the only captain of this World Cup who is younger than him. In fact, he was facing the only other Qatar captain under the age of 30.
For many others, it felt like a tournament too far.
It is easy to assume that it has always been so. In the mind’s eye, these legends of yesteryear seem larger than life. It becomes harder to imagine their younger selves once they get older and the image of the older gentleman crystallizes.
And yet Didier Deschamps was just 29 when he lifted the France 98 trophy. Carlos Alberto was just a puppy at 25 when he led Brazil to scoring glory in 1970. Bobby Moore was the same age when he achieved the feat for England in 1996.
Diego Maradona? He was 25 too. As for Pele, he never captained his country at a World Cup, but he never played in his 30s either, despite intense pressure from the Brazilian government to reverse his international retirement in 1974.
The aging World Cup icon may seem like a trope as old as the tournament itself, but consider that 17 of the 24 captains in 1982 were under 30 and that underscores the change. Only two captains out of 32 in their twenties? It is by far the smallest.
It looks like the international game is in something of a stasis as familiar faces hang in there for their close-up. This, despite the fact that the Winter World Cup means it is the biggest gap between tournaments since that imposed by the Second World War.
There are 24 nations in Qatar who also qualified for Russia in 2018. The majority of captains from four and a half years ago remain. Brazilian Marcelo left but the captaincy went to 38-year-old Thiago Silva, the man who captained them in 2014.
The armband stayed not just with Kane but with Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi; with Eden Hazard, Luka Modric and Diego Godin; with Simon Kjaer, Robert Lewandowski and many others. Some of these players are still close to their best. Many are not.
Gareth Bale could still make the Wales squad on merit, but the sight of him and Aaron Ramsey shuffling around the pitch made viewing uncomfortable even for supporters – a problem that was exacerbated when they were joined by Joe Allen.
The Belgian players seem to recognize their problem. Jan Vertonghen hinted he was aware of the problems but wanted to keep them in the dressing room. Too late for that. Kevin De Bruyne had made his feelings clear even before the World Cup.
“No chance, we’re too old,” he said The Guardian. “I think our luck was 2018. We have a good team, but they are getting old. We have lost key players. We have good new players coming in, but they are not at the level of other players in 2018.”
This may be the case with a golden generation. Maybe that’s what happened with Croatia and Belgium, second and third in the last World Cup. For Wales, read Uruguay, with Godin, Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani. Still, maybe refreshment could have come.
Belgium, for example, favored Hazard – a player who started 29 of Real Madrid’s 128 La Liga games – over in-form Leandro Trossard. Wout Faes is another Premier League player omitted in favor of Belgium-based Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld.
Hazard isn’t the only one holding on. Uruguayan captain Godin, 36, has barely played for Argentinian club Velez Sarsfield. Suarez also returned to South America with Nacional. Costa Rican captain Bryan Ruiz, 37, is also back in his native country with his first club Alajuelense.
Bale has started two out of 18 games since moving to Los Angeles. Messi could well join him in Major League Soccer. Ronaldo is now without a club. The next World Cup is closer than it has ever been to the previous tournament, but few intend to be there.
Advances in sports science partly explain this increase in the number of aging players. Professionalism levels are higher than before with players totally committed to their lifestyle. This is what gives Ronaldo an idea of health as he approaches 38.
Underneath, the aging process is impossible to hide. Those fast-twitch muscle fibers are gone. Messi is big enough to capitalize on a yard of space, a momentary lapse, a split second of time. But it’s getting harder and harder even for him.
There is a visceral delight in watching 23-year-old Kylian Mbappe slip away from the defense or 22-year-old Vinicius Junior tease and torment his full-back. It’s a reminder that even in an era of famous brands and footballers as independent entrepreneurs, it’s a young man’s game.
Sport can be cruel. There is no hiding place. If Usain Bolt was a movie star, he would still be at the box office. If Roger Federer was a rock star, he would still be selling stadiums. Despite all the smoke and mirrors in Qatar, the truth will always be on the ground.
There have been 21 men to lead their team to a World Cup victory. Although Italian goalkeeper Dino Zoff is 40, the majority are in their 20s. The average age of a World Cup-winning captain is between 29 and 30. Kane? Well, he’s 29 and a half.