Nothing lasts forever, not even for the heroes of planet football. Just as 2006 marked the end of the line for world-renowned talents such as Zinedine Zidane , Youri Djorkaeff, Josep Guardiola and Roy Keane, so this year will see something of a repeat, as another clutch of household names depart the big stage.
AC Milan midfielder Yoann Gourcuff was not even born when current team-mate Paolo Maldini started out in Serie A back in 1985. Over 20 years later, with the young Frenchman still finding his feet in the Italian top flight, the inspirational Rossoneri skipper continues to command a first-team place.
Long regarded as one of the finest defenders in the world, the great Maldini may well be forced to call time on an illustrious career due to a persistent knee problem. "I'm in a lot of pain," he said in November, "and I'm seriously thinking about retiring at the end of the season". The evergreen left-back has won everything there is to win with his beloved Milan, including two Intercontinental Cups, four UEFA Champions Leagues, four UEFA European Super Cups and no fewer than seven Italian league titles.
Maldini is not the only Milan legend who is likely to hang up his boots at the end of the current campaign. A cornerstone of the Rossoneri defence for many a year, centre-half Alessandro Costacurta continues to grace the San Siro despite being two years Maldini's senior , and can match his team-mate medal for medal. The veteran duo's thirst for silverware remains unquenched and both have their minds set on hoisting the UEFA Champions League trophy aloft one last time.
Blocking their path could well be Bayern Munich stalwarts Oliver Kahn and Mehmet Scholl. At the ripe old age of 37, the imposing goalkeeper knows full well that his career is drawing to a close and a European title would represent the perfect retirement gift. "Nothing would match winning the Champions League again this season and getting my hands on the trophy once more. That would definitely be the right time to call it a day," declared the man who won the adidas Golden Ball at the 2002 FIFA World Cup Korea/Japan™.
Trophies galore and a single regret
After arriving at Bayern in 1992, two years before his team-mate, Scholl has experienced every possible emotion with the Bavarian big guns. The classy midfielder endured the bitter disappointment of an injury-time defeat to Manchester United in the 1999 UEFA Champions League Final before tasting sweet success against Valencia two years later.
When, as has been announced, he bows out at the end of the season, the German international will have every reason to be satisfied with a glittering career. Eight Bundesliga crowns and five German Cups, not to mention that UEFA Champions League triumph and a UEFA Cup winners' medal, have made Scholl one of the most successful players in the history of German football. Perhaps the only blight on the Karlsruhe-born midfielder's career is the string of injuries that have cruelly prevented him from representing his country at a FIFA World Cup finals.
Brazilian striker Giovane Elber, a former team-mate of Kahn and Scholl's at Bayern, has just announced his retirement from the game. After spells with Stuttgart, Bayern, Olympique Lyonnais and Borussia Monchengladbach, the 34-year-old recently returned to his homeland for a stint with Cruzeiro of Belo Horizonte. However, the death of his father and a troublesome ankle injury have convinced the free-scoring forward that it was time to call it a day.
A place in the history books
Compatriot and fellow sharpshooter Romario has his sights sets on one last objective before he follows suit.
The man they call O baixinho (Shorty) turns 41 on 29 January but he is determined to become only the second player after Pele to notch 1,000 career goals . The former Barcelona legend has amassed an amazing 986 goals with 10 different clubs and recent months have seen him embark on a worldwide odyssey in search of the mythical mark. Since leaving Flamengo in March 2006, he has donned the colours of Miami FC (USA), Adelaide United (Australia) and Tupi in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais.
Romario's quest has now taken him back to where it all started. Vasco de Gama, the club where he made his debut all those years ago, have given the 1994 world champion the opportunity to make history in the famous black and white jersey. "It would be a dream come true to reach the 1,000 mark with a great club at the Maracana," said the inimitable striker, who will no doubt have earned his pension should he reach the magical target.
Although some way from matching Romario's staggering feats, Dutch forward Pierre van Hooijdonk has regularly menaced defences in an 18-year-career that will also come to an end in June. A formidable presence in the air and a feared free-kick specialist, Pi-air has showcased his goalscoring skills all over Europe, finishing top scorer in the Scottish Premier League with Celtic in 1996 and in Holland's Eredivisie in 2002 and 2003 with Feyenoord of Rotterdam. The scorer of 14 goals in 46 international appearances with the Oranje, the 37-year-old has said that he will see out the rest of his career with the club that gave him his only international trophy, the UEFA Cup in 2002.
And so, all good things must come to an end. After 15 years at the summit and giving so much pleasure to fans the world over, the time has almost come for these greats to bid farewell. Rest assured, though; just as there was life after Pele in Brazil, Maradona in Argentina and Platini in France, the coming years will surely see new heroes emerge to follow the trails blazed by the likes of Zidane, Maldini et al.