THE EXTRA wait for Euro 2020 may have helped young stars such as Jude Bellingham to reach the finals – but it has also intensified the hunger of several veterans targeting one last shot at glory.
Cristiano Ronaldo and Luka Modric have been stalwarts of these showpieces for well over a decade – but a curtain call is not far away.
These Euros also provides a unique opportunity for long-serving heroes of some of the less-fancied nations to go out on an unexpected high.
At the upper end of the age spectrum, Holland goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg stands as the oldest player called up at 38 years, eight months and 22 days old when he takes his place on the bench for his side’s opener versus Ukraine.
Likely to be ten feet down the touchline will be Andriy Pyatov, the Ukraine goalkeeper who has committed to retiring from international football after the tournament.
The 36-year-old and his 97 caps would probably have been first choice 12 months ago yet the emergence of Heorhiy Bushchan puts that under threat.
One veteran who will not have to worry about his role will be Goran Pandev.
The Genoa forward, 37, has 119 caps in the bag for North Macedonia and leads something of a swan song frontline featuring Ivan Trickovski (34) and Krste Velkoski (33).
Pandev has seen it all in Italian football but Trickovski and Velkoski have spent their careers, albeit successfully, with the sort of teams Tottenham fans get perennially dragged to on cold November Thursday nights.
After years of graft in the outer reaches of European football, this is their time to shine with North Macedonia playing in their first ever major tournament.
Pepe and Cristiano Ronaldo lead Portugal’s defence of their Euros crown[/caption]
Goran Pandev is another veteran on the charge this summer[/caption]
So to is it for Tim Sparv, the 34-year-old captain of Finland.
The debutants knocked out Greece to qualify for their first-ever major finals and will invoke the 2004 winners’ sense of wonder in attempting to emulate the shock success of Iceland and Wales in past years.
Russia and 37-year-old Yuri Zhirkov hope to mimic their own 2018 World Cup run and a return to the latter stages for Sweden captain Andreas Granqvist and Sebastian Larsson, both 36, will cap fine careers.
And if anyone is out to re-enact a surprise triumph before strolling off towards the sun, it is Portugal.
A raft of young talent has brought new energy into Fernando Santos’ squad but they also boast the oldest outfield player at the tournament in Pepe, 38, plus Jose Fonte, 37, Ronaldo, 36 and Joao Moutinho, 34 – all of whom played in the 2016 final win over France.
Good luck telling Ronaldo that this is his last tournament but the generation that promised so much and delivered little in the late 2000s has the ability to deliver an unprecedented defence of its title.
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Yet many other top nations also boast wily performers that are bred for the often cynical nature of tournament football.
Few players embody that more than Giorgio Chiellini who, at 36, offers a hugely impactful bench option for Roberto Mancini’s Italy if not also a reliable back-up starter.
Chiellini’s sardonic style is so well defined that he probably learned to cheerfully win a stoppage-time free-kick before he could walk. His more agile, technical centre-back partner, Leonardo Bonucci is also getting on at 34.
The aforementioned Modric, 35, can lead Croatia out of a relatively favourable group into a potentially kind knockouts route.
Luka Modric may not get another chance at a major final with Croatia[/caption]
Italy’s Giorgio Chiellini has come to define the essence of the wily veteran[/caption]
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Thomas Vermaelen, 35, Jan Vertonghen and Dries Mertens, both 34, will be desperate to make the most of what may be their final involvement in Belgium’s golden generation.
At 35 also, Manuel Neuer will be out to prove that past glory is a very weak disinfectant against the German appetite for success.
Much will be made of the exuberance of youth in the coming weeks, to deal with the gruelling season, sore limbs and hasty travel arrangements of Euro 2020.
But don’t count out the experienced heads who will be every bit as prepared to deal with the stresses of a major tournament, and as desperate as ever to make their last dance on the big stage count.
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