Financial TimesFinancial Times

Why middle-aged Messi and Modrić are still the world’s best

By Simon Kuper

09 Nov 2022 · 10 min read

Editor's Note

The biggest names in this World Cup were born between 1985 and 1988. Athleticism may decline with age but confidence in decision-making only increases.

Last year, I lived three metro stops from the Santiago Bernabéu stadium in Madrid, and so I spent many evenings watching Karim Benzema. Real Madrid’s French forward — who last month won the Ballon d’Or for world’s best player, aged 34 — spends much of each game strolling around. He is scanning, clocking the location and directional movement of every player around him, as if that trademark bandage on his damaged right hand concealed a GPS. Then, when he suddenly breaks into a sprint, he is telling his teammates: “I have seen a gap. Give me the ball now.”

Once they feed him, he keeps scanning even while on the ball in the penalty area. He takes every split-second the defenders leave him until he identifies the optimal choice, whether that’s shooting or passing off any part of either leg. When the ball goes in, Benzema generally even celebrates calmly. He had seen the goal coming before anyone else did. In Qatar, he aims to win the World Cup with France. Benzema (who before this year had never finished in the top 15 for the Ballon d’Or) exemplifies a trend of this tournament, and indeed in modern sports: many of the best players are entering middle age.

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