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HomeQatarCristiano Ronaldo, Robert Lewandowski, Lionel Messi... Neymar? Is the Qatar World Cup...

Cristiano Ronaldo, Robert Lewandowski, Lionel Messi… Neymar? Is the Qatar World Cup their swansong?

The 2022 World Cup is a first in many respects, but could also be the last time we see some of the biggest names on the international stage.

Perennial Ballon d’Or challengers Robert Lewandowski, Neymar, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are all into their thirties and while there are no doubts over the fitness of the Portuguese and Polish strikers, both the former Barcelona men appear to be struggling a little this season.

When the World Cup rolls around in North America, it is conceivable that none of them will feature in Mexico, the United States and Canada, even if playing in America is still part of their career goals. Here’s how things stand for the four veteran world beaters.

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Cristiano Ronaldo (37 years old, 41 at 2026 World Cup)

Ronaldo has recently said that he aims to play past 40, and in the run-up to the play-off win over North Macedonia earlier this week, he claimed that it would be his decision when he would walk away from international football. It displays perhaps a misguided perception of his authority within the Portuguese national setup, but also a well-earned confidence that he remains the master of his own destiny and in excellent physical shape.

While it appears that at Manchester United his powers have noticeably waned over the course of 2021 with no serious resurgence in 2022, there is not yet a better striker for his country, nor is there one who displays such commitment to performing at the best of his ability.

The appeal for Ronaldo to continue is obvious. Having played in Italy, Spain and England, and with Bayern Munich unlikely to be interested, there is no major league for him to aim for. The chance for the striker to extend his career, and his prominence in front of the cameras, would likely be offered by MLS football. Given the relatively poor quality and the ability of Designated Players to coin it in, a few years to make his name known in the United States would appeal. A career conclusion in the country’s second-ever World Cup might be considered a fitting finale by the player.

Lionel Messi (34 years old, 39 at 2026 World Cup)

Seven. Seven. Lionel Messi has just seven goals for Paris Saint-Germain so far this season, and only two in Ligue 1. Not since 2005/2006 has the Argentine failed to score fewer than 10 goals in a season, but with the 34-year-old out of form in France and in a PSG club that is palpably struggling under Mauricio Pochettino, there is a chance that he won’t clear the bar this year.

: Lionel Messi of Argentina looks on during a match between Argentina and Brazil as part of FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Qualifiers at San Juan del Bicentenario Stadium

Image credit: Getty Images

There are obviously mitigating factors for Messi’s problems. Pochettino has not got the club playing to their full potential, and it would be understandable if the huge personal upheaval of leaving Spain has dulled his focus to football. But there is also the possibility that 34 is as far as his body could take him before he began to tail off. Just because he was better than Ronaldo in his prime it doesn’t mean he is fitter. 836 club games, 160 for the full national side. Almost 1,000 appearances is enough for most footballers to start feeling a touch sore, and there is of course the period of pizza that Messi admitted to during a mini-funk when he was still at Barcelona.

Of course, given all he has done so far, there is no chance that he will be dropped for Qatar, and he aided them to Copa America success, but this could well be the last hurrah for Argentina and Messi together.

Robert Lewandowski (33 years old, 37 at 2026 World Cup)

If there is one player into his thirties who seems as committed to zero percent body fat as Ronaldo, then it is Robert Lewandowski.

The Poland international was one of the few players – along with the similarly lean Mohamed Salah – who was able to take up the Messi/Ronaldo challenge of scoring a goal a game, and he shows no sign of levelling off. He could well exceed his record of 51 goals in a season if Bayern continue to dominate the Bundesliga over the remainder of the campaign.

ANDORRA LA VELLA, ANDORRA – NOVEMBER 12: Robert Lewandowski of Poland looks on during the 2022 FIFA World Cup Qualifier match between Andorra and Poland at Estadi Nacional on November 12, 2021 in Andorra la Vella, Andorra. (Photo by Pedro Salado/Quality S

Image credit: Getty Images

But despite his continued brilliance, the German team are yet to offer him a contract extension, meaning he could be off in the summer should they try to get cash for Lewandowski rather than let him leave on a free in a year’s time. Perhaps they recognise something in his performances that suggest he is coming towards the end of his peak, perhaps they just don’t think it’s worth the risk. But when it comes to 2026 the chances of him still leading the line for Poland look far fetched, if not impossible.

Neymar (30 years old, 34 at 2026 World Cup)

If reports about the Brazilian are to be believed, Neymar’s Bacchanalian approach to training might explain why he is off the pace this season.

Neymar – Brazil

Image credit: Getty Images

PSG, as noted above, have struggled, but the Brazil international often cuts a jaunty figure in pre-season with the hint of gut rather than inguinal ligament, and for footballers these days, anything but a commitment to amino acids and creatine tends to lead to an early retirement. Consider Wayne Rooney in his thirties vs Ronaldo. Neymar seems to be more likely to follow the former’s career arc than the latter’s.

In 2026 Neymar will be 34. Will he be playing for Brazil? Perhaps a more pressing question to ask would be: will he be playing at all?

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