They say a career as a footballer is always a short one, and they’re absolutely right.
Even those who manage to find supreme levels of longevity to their game are usually done by their mid-thirties, while some look ready to hang up the boots as soon as they enter their thirties altogether.
It’s difficult to leave behind what is such a difficult industry to make a career out of, though, and with sports science constantly developing, some of the world’s best are now extending their careers at the top to freakish stints.
You only have to look at the influence of a 39-year-old Zlatan Ibrahimovic at AC Milan, who has just lifted the Serie A title with the Rossoneri. Or at the timeless Real Madrid duo of Luka Modric and Toni Kroos, who, at 36 and 32 respectively, were able to dominate in last season’s Champions League and carry Real Madrid to their 14th title.
And then we have to talk about Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. Ronaldo, now 37, has just returned to Manchester United and put together a 24 goal season in all competitions, while Messi is still operating at his equally superhuman levels aged 35.
But while there is that elite group who continue to defy the odds, there are also the players that were once prominent within the top leagues or famous for their exploits elsewhere, but have since fallen away from the limelight completely.
As a result, we simply forget about them, assuming the players we once had a solid memory of have merely slipped into quiet retirement. And while many are happy to do that, there is a select group of footballers who were once big names, that are still plying their trade to absolutely nobody’s knowledge.
Well, most people’s knowledge, of course. The following 14 footballers were once rabidly well known but, in their later years, have actually continued playing while going completely under the radar. Some of the names are huge. Let’s take a look.
14. Kazuyoshi Miura – Suzuka Point Getters (on loan from Yokohama FC)
A name that creeps onto social media a few times a year, Miura has often gained virality for being one of the oldest active professional footballers in the world, and usually makes a few headlines when he extends his contract at Yokohama year after year.
Now 55, he very rarely features with regularity, but the fact he’s actually still playing professionally at all is incredible.
Chelsea in pursuit of Ronaldo, Neymar (Football Terrace)
13. Yuri Zhirkov – Free agent
Remembered best for his time at Chelsea from 2009 to 2011 among English fans, Zhirkov also enjoyed his best years at CSKA Moscow before his move to Stamford Bridge.
Zhirkov has been capped over 100 times for Russia and despite being 38, is still turning out as a professional. He has just left Russian outfit Khimki and is looking for a new club ahead of the 2022/23 campaign.
12. Maarten Stekelenburg – Ajax
Not only is Stekelenburg still at a top club in Ajax, he holds the number one shirt, aged 39.
The iconic Dutch goalkeeper enjoyed a solid spell with Ajax in the 2000s and moved to Roma in 2011, but has also turned out for Fulham, Southampton, Everton and Monaco as well as being capped 63 times by the Netherlands. Stekelenburg actually made eight appearances last season, too, which is absurd.
11. Jo – Free agent
A third spell at Corinthians has just come to an end for 35-year-old Jo, who is now a free agent and looking for his next move with retirement not yet on the horizon.
The Brazilian winger has been completely forgotten about since his 2008 signing for Manchester City and the loans to Everton that followed. Jo was lost in the shuffle amid City’s takeover and did not manage to make it stick in Europe.
10. Denilson – Ibis
A man who became the world’s most expensive footballer in 1998 following his move to Real Betis, Denilson retired following a serious journeyman career, but announced a shock comeback in 2022.
At the age of 44, the once highly regarded winger signed with Brazilian outfit Ibis some months ago, in what was an official footballing comeback, 12 years on from his initial retirement.
9. Diego Lopez – Rayo Vallecano
Goalkeepers have always been able to extend their career a little longer, but it’s quite absurd to think how much Lopez has fallen off the face of the earth.
Remembered best for his spell with Real Madrid in 2013/14 where he deputised for Iker Casillas and a move to Milan that followed it, the Spaniard seemed to fall away completely after playing for two major clubs, but is actually still plying his trade in the Spanish top flight, seemingly in secret.
8. Fabio Quagliarella – Sampdoria
Not only is Quagliarella still playing in Serie A at the age of 39, he’s a player that has actually gotten better with age. His thirties have undoubtedly been the best in his career.
A name that will be much more familiar with fans of Italian football, more casual fans will merely remember the striker for his stint at Juventus from 2010 to 2014. It’s since then that he’s blossomed. He managed nine goal contributions in all competitions last season, and played 33 league games.
7. Joaquin – Real Betis
Joaquin will turn 41 at the end of July and continues to quietly plug away for Real Betis in his second spell with the club, having appeared over 600 times in La Liga throughout his career.
The Spaniard is a name that has faded out of the limelight as he has advanced with age and stepped away from the national team, but he made headlines once again as Betis lifted the Copa Del Rey; the third of his career.
6. Sebastian Larsson – AIK
Larsson caused havoc in the Premier League in the late 2000s and even throughout the 2010s with his freakish ability from dead ball scenarios and set pieces. Sunderland were a force with this guy in their side.
Since leaving England, fans have understandably thought nothing much of him and assumed he would’ve retired by now. But he hasn’t. At age 37, Larsson is still turning out for Allsvenskan side AIK. Better yet, he’s managed five goals from 16 appearances in 2022; a serious return.
5. Roque Santa Cruz – Libertad
Since leaving Europe in 2016 after a stint with Malaga, little has been thought of Santa Cruz, who was once a sensation at Bayern Munich and more memorably Blackburn, lighting up the Premier League before flopping at City.
But, the Paraguayan has actually been plugging away in his home country, and still continues to do so. He’ll turn 41 in August, but is still proving prolific as ever for Libertad with seven goals and two assists from 19 games in all competitions so far this season. Bring him back to Europe, we say.
4. Vagner Love – Free agent
Remembered fondly by many for his eccentric hairstyles, wizardry skills and unrelenting cannon of a shot on either foot, Vagner Love was also a sensation due to how good he was in the original FIFA Street video game.
The Brazilian spent the bulk of his career with CSKA Moscow and has long been forgotten about, but was playing with Danish outfit FC Midtjylland until the end of the 2021/22 season. Now 38, Love still has no plans to retire. Keep an eye out.
3. Shunsuke Nakamura – Yokohama FC
Yokohama FC – who play in Japan’s J2 League – clearly have a thing for building their team around experienced heads. Miura is not the only old head in the squad, as Celtic hero and 38-year-old free-kick sensation Nakamura is also on their books.
Nakamura signed with Yokohama in 2019 and, in late 2021, extended his contract to play for another season. One last dance. We sincerely hope he is encouraged to shoot from every free-kick, no matter the distance.
2. Alex Song – Arta Solar 7
Song falling off the face of the European footballing ladder considering he has turned out for both Arsenal and Barcelona is strange enough, but what is even more bizarre is the 34-year-old’s current situation.
He signed with Djiboutian top flight outfit Arta Solar 7 in 2020, otherwise known as Association Sportive d’Arta when not sponsored, in a mega-money deal with the previously unheard of club being backed by controversial owner Tommy Tayoro Nyckoss, owner of Solar 7 and husband of the President of Djibouti’s daughter.
1. Emmanuel Adebayor – Semassi
Following a prolific spell in Turkey with Istanbul Basaksehir from 2017 to 2019, Adebayor – a Premier League great – has played in Paraguay, and most recently his home nation of Togo, where he remains today.
A footballer that has been completely forgotten about as a result of where he’s played his football in recent years, a now 38-year-old Adebayor plays for 10-time Togolese champions Semassi. Admit it, you had absolutely no idea.