Time to call it a day
© AFP

All good things must come to an end, and nowhere is that familiar old cliché truer than in football. A few months back, FIFA.com took a look at some of the biggest names in the game planning to call it a day at the end of the 2006/07 season. With the last balls now well and truly kicked, the time has come for those iconic stars to hang up their boots and make the most of a thoroughly deserved retirement.

At the opposite end of the cycle, some of football's brightest prospects will take centre stage when the FIFA U-20 World Cup Canada 2007 gets going in a few hours' time. As they set out on the path trodden by so many before them, it is amazing to think none were even born when legendary Italian defender Alessandro Costacurta made his Serie A debut. Brought up through the ranks at AC Milan, he was on loan at AC Monza when he first took the field in 1986/87, but returned to Lombardy a season later and never swapped the famous red-and-black shirt for another.

Anyone who spends 20 years with the Rossoneri can expect to walk away laden with winners' medals and 'Billy' is no exception. Boasting two Intercontinental (Toyota) Cup wins and seven Italian championships, he also experienced UEFA Champions League glory five times, with his fifth taste coming in the most recent edition. Not called upon to feature in last month's final against Liverpool, the 41-year-old centre-back ultimately said his goodbyes against Udinese on 19 May, and although Milan lost 3-2, history will remember that the home side's captain for a day scored from the penalty spot in his last ever appearance. His playing career now over, Costacurta will continue to serve Milan as Carlo Ancelotti's assistant.

Good news for strikers
Another Serie A staple made his last contribution this season when goalkeeper Angelo Peruzzi decided to call it a day. After 20 years of frustrating Italy's top forwards, the 37-year-old Lazio shot-stopper can look back on his time between the sticks with immense satisfaction. A member of the Azzurri's triumphant 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany™ squad, he also lifted the UEFA Champions League trophy, the Intercontinental (Toyota) Cup and won three Scudetti.

Those honours came during his association with Juventus, but Peruzzi's career began back at AS Roma and there was a fitting symmetry when he slipped on his gloves for the final time against the Giallorossi in the Rome derby on 29 April. As miserly as ever, it was no surprise that he bowed out with a clean sheet to secure a 0-0 draw.

Europe's strikers have also bade farwell to another old foe now that iconic Portugal and FC Porto goalkeeper Vitor Baia has called time on his career. The last line of defence for the Dragoes from 1988 to 1996 and then from 1999 to 2007, he only left the club so close to his heart for the opportunity to join Barcelona and duly returned to see out his playing days with the blue-and-whites. He is Portugal's most decorated footballer with 33 titles to his name and, aside from his 406 appearances in the Portuguese top flight and 88 international caps, he can also pride himself on belonging to the select group of players to have won the UEFA Champions League (with Porto in 2004), the UEFA Cup Winners' Cup (Barcelona, 1996) and the UEFA Cup (Porto, 2003).

Sadly for Portuguese football fans, he is far from being the only Lusitanian legend to step down this year as Jorge Costa came to a similar decision a few months ago. Another contributor to Porto's magnificent European conquests in 2003 and 2004, the solid defender called time after a stint with Standard Liege in 2006, where he contested his last few encounters alongside a third member of Portugal's golden generation to be hanging up his boots. At 34, former Sporting Portugal marksman Ricardo Sa Pinto has opted to end a career that saw him strike 10 times in 45 outings for his country.

Greek god
It was, of course, on Portuguese soil that Greece's Theodoros Zagorakis experienced his crowning glory. Captain and soul of the team that reigned supreme at UEFA EURO 2004, the most-capped player in Greek history will not be around to defend his nation's title in 2008 as he too has retired from the game. The emblematic PAOK Salonika midfielder quit at the end of the 2006/07 season and was installed as the club's new president a few weeks later.

Beaten by Zagorakis and Co in the EURO 2004 semi-finals, the Czech Republic's Karel Poborsky has also made the transition from player to president. His own country's most-capped campaigner, he left the field for the last time on the final day of the Czech season to become president of his beloved Ceskz Budejovice, as well as technical director for the national team. Excited about both those roles, the vast experience Poborsky picked up at Benfica, Lazio and Manchester United, among other clubs, is sure to stand him in good stead.

Former USSR and Russia winger Andrei Kanchelskis ended his own stay at Old Trafford in 1995, and like Poborsky went on to enjoy a long career away from the Red Devils. But after successful spells in England, Scotland, Italy, Saudi Arabia and latterly with Russian side Krylya Sovetov, the explosive Ukrainian finally ran out of steam in February at the venerable age of 38.
Impressive, yes, but still one year shy of his old team-mate Paul Ince, who built himself a reputation as a tenacious tackler while at Manchester United, Inter Milan and Liverpool.

More recently, the 'Guv'nor' has been juggling playing and coaching duties, having first combined the jobs at Swindon in 2006 before joining Macclesfield Town this year. With Macclesfield threatened with relegation from League Two (fourth division), however, the ex-England captain decided to focus solely on his role in the dugout - and the Silkmen went on to preserve their league status on the last day of the season. This achievement earned Ince plenty of acclaim, and the promise of a substantial transfer warchest prompted him to move on to another fourth tier outfit, Milton Keynes Dons, earlier this week.

Records and retirement
Iran's Ali Daei followed a similar route as the sun began to set on his own record-breaking career. The world's all-time leading goalscorer in international matches, with 109 strikes from 149 games, the former Bayern Munich man took on the dual player-coach challenge with Saipa FC last summer and proved an instant success, clinching the 2007 Iranian championship and hitting the winner in the decisive match. When the new season gets underway, the 38-year-old will be 100 per cent devoted to his duties in the dugout - unless, of course, the call of the pitch proves too enticing.

A few days after Iran bid adieu to a national legend, it was Uruguay's turn to produce a fitting send-off. At 35 years of age, Penarol defender Paolo Montero has brought the curtain down on an illustrious career filled with honours from his time at Juventus between 1996 and 2005. After leaving Turin, the no-nonsense stopper returned to his homeland for one last stint with the club where it all began for him, and he takes with him his 61 caps for the Celeste, whom he had the honour of captaining at the 2002 FIFA World Cup Korea/Japan.

Nor should we forget Germany's Mehmet Scholl and Sebastian Deisler, USA stalwart Coby Jones, Netherlands mainstays Frank de Boer, Pierre van Hooijdonk and Phillip Cocu, and Australian defender Paul Okon - all of whom will be watching from the sidelines next term.

In each case, these newly retired veterans leave behind a long list of precious memories from their time in the middle, as well as a hole in the hearts of their biggest supporters. But those saddened to see their favourite players reach the end of the line can reassure themselves that many will be back in one capacity or another, perhaps even barking orders from the dugout. After all, there are few habits harder to kick than football.