Eden Hazard this week announced his decision to retire as a professional footballer at the age of 32.
The Belgian winger, who once thrilled Chelsea fans at Stamford Bridge with his tremendous footwork and dribbling ability, had endured four injury-plagued years at Real Madrid, but it nonetheless came as a surprise given his age.
“You must listen to yourself and say stop at the right time,” Hazard wrote on Instagram. “After 16 years and more than 700 matches played, I have decided to end my career as a professional footballer.”
Hazard isn’t the first to call it a day earlier than expected, and he certainly won’t be the last. Whether it be due to injury, personal circumstances or a loss of love for the game, here are some of the best to do so.
Five great footballers who retired early like Eden Hazard:
The shock that accompanied Eric Cantona’s sudden retirement from football in 1997 was palpable. Here was arguably the best player in English football at the time ending his career at the age of 30 (thirty!) when there was still so much to be done at Manchester United.
The Frenchman was the catalyst for the club’s success in the nineties after joining from rivals Leeds, the key ingredient in ending their 26-year long wait for a league title. That’s why it was a shame that he missed out on Man United winning Champions League just two years later, as well as France’s World Cup triumph in 1998.
But it was typical Cantona to bow out in the manner he did. His appetite sated, he went out on his own terms, leaving everyone wanting more, including his manager Alex Ferguson, who wrote a heartfelt letter to the ex-striker.
Sir Alex Ferguson sent Eric Cantona this letter after his decision to retire in 1997. pic.twitter.com/kHHkuEg0CV
— 90s Football (@90sfootball) December 2, 2019
Retiring at the age of 33 this past January, Gareth Bale called it a day just marginally before the average retirement age of 35 for footballers. But when it was announced it came as something of a surprise, as the Welshman had previously indicated his intention to continue playing.
That suggested that Bale still had more left in the tank, but given his chronic history of injuries it perhaps wasn’t so shocking to see him walk off into the sunset and onto the putting greens.
The flying winger joined Real Madrid for a world record transfer fee in 2013 after making waves at Tottenham Hotspur. Although he was never a fan favourite at the Bernabeu, he spent nine trophy-laden years at the club, including five Champions Leagues.
After winning the MLS Cup with LAFC and guiding Wales to their first World Cup in 64 years, Bale hung up his boots. “I feel incredibly fortunate to have realised my dream of playing the sport I love,” he said.
Marco van Basten
Diego Maradona was once asked who was the best player he ever saw. He answered: “It’s between Romario and Marco van Basten.” Try and imagine, then, what the world missed out on when the Dutchman was forced to retire at the age of 31.
Sadly, he had been effectively already in retirement for two years previously due to recurring ankle injuries, his last game for AC Milan being the 1993 Champions League final against Marseille.
Van Basten proved himself to be one of the greatest players of all-time long before then, having won two European Cups, three Ballon d’Or awards, and scoring arguably the most spectacular goal ever seen in a major final when he netted the winner against the USSR in the Euro 88 decider.
— La UEFA (@UEFAcom_it) October 31, 2019
While his brother Michael is the more celebrated of the two, Brian Laudrup’s football career was immensely successful. The Dane won league titles in three different countries, as well as the Champions League with AC Milan, and was a key member of the Denmark team that won Euro 92 and the Confederations Cup in 1995.
Crowned the Danish Player of the Year on four separate occasions, Laudrup was undoubtedly one of the nation’s greatest ever footballing products, wowing spectators with his terrific dribbling ability. Sadly injuries forced him into retirement in 2000 at the age of just 31.
A prolific striker in his day, Just Fontaine famously scored the most goals in a single World Cup campaign by a player when he found the net 13 times for France in 1958 – a record he holds to this day and likely always will.
Fontaine, who scored 30 goals in just 21 caps for the French national team, formed part of the highly successful Stade de Reims team that won three league titles and reached the final of the European Cup in 1959.
Sadly for Fontaine, he had to retire at the age of 28 due to injury, just four years after his exploits at the World Cup in Sweden.
⚽️ 13 goals in 6 matches 🤯
— FIFA World Cup (@FIFAWorldCup) August 18, 2020