The footballing landscape is going to look very different next season.
Some big managerial changes are expected to be made and there will be plenty of high-profile transfers going on throughout the summer — but it also marks the end of an era for quite a few clubs.
More than a handful of legends are either parting from a club where they established their greatness, or are bowing out of the game entirely. From epoch-defining forwards to midfield stalwarts and mercurial maestros, the complexion of the sport will look unrecognisable in 2023/24.
Here, we look at those venerated stars set to leave their sacred homes this summer — and pay homage to the ones hanging up their boots.
Where else to start but with Zlatan himself? The pony-tailed demigod has decided to pull the curtain down on an illustrious and trophy-spangled career — and in truth, the sport will never be the same again. We loved his collection of Puskas-worthy strikes and world-class No. 9 play, but Ibrahimovic will be best remembered for his personality — a truly unique character with an aura that just captured the imagination.
His playing career certainly wasn’t too bad either. Spells at boyhood club Malmo and Ajax preceded stints at Juventus, Inter, Barcelona, Milan, PSG, Manchester United, LA Galaxy and Milan again — we’ve certainly seen worse CVs. And in that time he collected just about every accolade and trophy under the sun, bar perhaps the two most desired: the Champions League and the Ballon d’Or. Still, he bows out as one of the greatest.
Not retiring, but Karim Benzema’s departure from Real Madrid after 14 years this summer feels profound. The final relic of Los Blancos‘ famous ‘BBC’ trident — containing himself, Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale — the Frenchman leaves the Bernabeu a legend, a five-time Champions League winner, a Ballon d’Or recipient and the club’s second-highest goalscorer ever.
El Clasico will just have a very unfamiliar vibe next term without Benzema bullying defences and Sergio Busquets pivoting his way out of trouble. The one-club man has announced his departure from Barcelona this summer and leaves behind a legacy that transcends sporting achievement. He is a symbol of Catalonian football, the totemic La Masia child who rose through the ranks and became a legend. He waves goodbye to the hallowed Camp Nou turf with 722 appearances behind him and three Champions League winner’s medals. Not a bad paper round.
Another who bids bon voyage to a club for whom he became symbolic. Roberto Firmino endeared himself to Koppites with his infectious smile and cut-throat devastation in the final third. Often described as a selfless striker, the Brazilian was Liverpool’s consummate false nine, a player upon whom Jurgen Klopp could build his attack around. His telepathic link-up play was notably pronounced in a famous attacking trio containing himself, Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah, where they worked together to win Liverpool’s first-ever Premier League title and a sixth European Cup for the club.
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He aged like a fine wine and thumbed his nose at Father Time, but this summer, superlative star Joaquin has decided to hang up his boots. A Spanish half-centurion, the 41-year-old etched his name in Betis folklore across two spells after winning the Copa del Rey as a fresh-faced trickster in 2005, and as a veteran last season. Betis have only won three Copa del Reys in their history, and Joaquin is responsible for two of them. He also bows out as the club’s record appearance-maker with 528 games behind him. An underrated and often under-appreciated winger who gave plenty of full-backs nightmares throughout his fleet-footed career.
“We are coming to an important moment, whether for the club or for me. It’s the end of an era,” Hugo Lloris recently reflected to the French newspaper Nice-Matin. And so, that appears to be it. After 11 years in north London, the World Cup-winning gloveman is on his way out, ushering in a new dawn for Tottenham. He protected his net with distinction for over a decade at Spurs and leaves as the club’s record appearance-maker for a foreign player (seventh overall). It will take a huge presence to remedy his void in the immediate future.
Another legend calling time on his career, Marek Hamsik will retire at the end of the season, and well, I just don’t like that one bit. His signature Mohawk dazzled the terraces of the formerly named San Paolo as he earned the captain’s armband at Napoli and became the club’s all-time top appearance-maker. A bit of globetrotting followed his illustrious and esteemed spell in Campania, and now the 35-year-old’s boots will be hung up for good.
Another player who has defined the Klopp era on Merseyside, James Milner will leave Liverpool this summer after eight years at Anfield. He has embodied the high-octane and relentless pressing doctrine of Klopp’s Liverpool with his Rolls Royce engine and unyielding tenacity. He joined in the same transfer window as Firmino in 2015 as a free transfer from Man City, and will undoubtedly go down as one of the greatest pieces of business ever conducted by a Premier League club.
The towering ‘keeper was paraded around the Johan Cruyff Arena in Ajax’s final game of the 2022/23 season, serenaded by liturgical chants as the home fans bade farewell to one of their own. Stekelenburg will be hanging up his gloves this summer, ending a 21-year career between the sticks. A two-time Rinus Michels Award winner (Ajax’s Player of the Year), the 40-year-old enjoyed two fruitful stints in Amsterdam and leaves a legend.
Not as profound as Benzema’s departure, but Marco Asensio’s exit from Valdebebas still feels quite acute. Having joined in 2014 from Mallorca as a cherubic-featured wizard, Asensio seemed destined for greatness — and he didn’t do too badly. Injuries and a traffic jam of talent in front of him meant he never really went on to establish himself in the bracket of Benzema, Luka Modric and Co, but he still racked up just shy of 300 appearances and won three Champions Leagues in his time.