The World Cup lost its headline acts on Saturday as the game’s two biggest stars, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, readied to leave Russia after their teams were eliminated in the round of 16.
Messi’s Argentina lost 4-3 to France and hours later Ronaldo’s Portugal went down 2-1 to Uruguay, leaving the tournament without its two best known and most loved players.
Given their ages – Messi is 31 and Ronaldo 33 – this could be the last the world sees of the pair, who have monopolised the world player of the year award for the last 10 years, on the biggest stage of all.
If Barcelona forward Messi, who previously quit the Argentina team in 2016 before changing his mind, does not continue until the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, he will end his career without a major trophy for his country.
After winning a gold medal with Argentina in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, many expected the little forward to take his country to glory in a World Cup or at least the Copa America.
Yet despite his brilliance – and some talented team mates — Argentina have remained without such a trophy — losing to Germany in the 2010 World Cup quarter-finals and suffering the same fate in the 2014 final in Rio.
While Real Madrid’s Ronaldo will also be bitterly disappointed to be heading home earlier than planned from Russia, he at least has the consolation of having won his country’s first ever European Championship, two years ago in France.
Ronaldo played a leadership role in that triumph and Portugal coach Fernando Santos said he hopes he will continue and help him with a new generation of players.
“Certainly, yes, Cristiano still has a lot to give to football. There is a tournament in September, the UEFA (Nations League) and we hope he will be with us to help the younger ones to grow,” he told reporters.
Remarkably, the pair pack their bags still never having scored in a World Cup knockout game.
They will both have expected to have gone much further this time but they did leave their mark in Russia with moments that captured their remarkable talent.
Ronaldo struck a hat-trick in his opening game – a thrilling 3-3 draw with Spain, including a brilliant late free kick to level the match.
He also grabbed the only goal in the 1-0 victory over Morocco.
Messi’s return in Russia was more meagre — at times he looked disillusioned on the field as Argentine struggled to find anything like their usual style and he drifted deep into midfield in the forlorn hope of influencing games.
The one moment that will remain in the memory was his sublime goal against Nigeria, where he controlled a cross-field ball with his thigh, showing incredible technique, before a deft second touch and pinpoint finish.