Will veterans like Ronaldo, Lewandowski and Co. be at the 2026 World Cup?

It has been a summer of breakthrough stars at Euro 2024, with Spain’s Lamine Yamal (16), England’s Kobbie Mainoo (19) and Germany’s Jamal Musiala (21) all offering a glimpse of the new wave of talent that could dominate the stage at the 2026 World Cup in the United States, Mexico and Canada.

But while the new kids on the block are showing that the future of the game is in good health, football’s old guard have also made headlines — and many of them show no sign of calling it a day.

How many will still be around in 2026? Some will be desperate to go out on a high at the World Cup, while others will draw a line under their international career after accepting that two more years is two years too many.

So which Euro 2024 veterans will continue and which ones will be unable to make it? ESPN has assessed the 2026 prospects of some of the biggest (old) names in the game.

After the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, which coincided with Ronaldo’s move to the Saudi Pro League with Al Nassr, it seemed unlikely that he would try to string out his record-breaking international career with Portugal through to Euro 2024.

But here we are in Germany and Ronaldo has started every game for Roberto Martinez’s team. He has yet to score, and his performance in the 0-0 round-of-16 draw against Slovenia, when he had a penalty saved by Jan Oblak in extra time before Portugal went through via a shootout, highlighted his desperation to hit the back of the net.

Ronaldo said after that game that this Euros will “without a doubt” be the last of his career. But that didn’t rule out one final World Cup.

Even though Ronaldo can no longer move as freely as he once did, and there is no denying that the goals are drying up, he remains the Portugal captain and leader of the team.

So the only person likely to stop Ronaldo playing at the next World Cup is Ronaldo himself. He is still scoring in Saudi Arabia — he set a new league record of 35 goals in 2023-24 — and will be determined to continue, so playing at the World Cup at the age of 41 is more of a probability than a possibility.


England’s captain and all-time leading goal scorer will only be 32 when the World Cup comes around, but Euro 2024 has exposed growing issues with Kane’s game.

He drops too deep and abandons his centre-forward position too often, lacks the pace to escape his defensive marker and he is struggling to impact games for Gareth Southgate’s team. But you cannot escape the fact that he still scored 36 goals in 32 Bundesliga appearances in his first season at Bayern Munich.

With the increasing likelihood that Southgate will leave his role as England coach at the end of the tournament, a new manager may decide to plan for the future and turn to younger options such as Ivan Toney or Ollie Watkins, or focus on a more fluid attacking approach involving the likes of Cole Palmer, Anthony Gordon and Euro 2024 absentee Marcus Rashford.

So perhaps Kane has work to do to make it to the next World Cup, though a new coach could also set the England team up differently to play more to the captain’s own strengths.

Yes, he has scored two goals at Euro 2024 so he remains a threat, but if he does make the plane will he still be a certain starter?


The Barcelona forward endured a frustrating Euro 2024 with Poland, missing the first two games due to injury and then scoring a penalty in the 1-1 draw with France after the Poles had already been eliminated.

But despite the disappointment in Germany, Lewandowski’s immediate reaction to Poland’s early exit was to suggest that he wants to continue playing for the national team.

He will be 37 by the time the World Cup comes around, but he is contracted to Barcelona until the end of the 2025-26 season, so is likely to still be playing at a high level.

And having been Poland’s talisman for the best part of a decade, Lewandowski knows a place in the team will be his for as long as he wants it, so expect him to be around at 2026.

PROSPECTS FOR 2026: 5/5 — if Poland qualify, which is far from certain.

The Belgium midfielder is the last-man standing of Belgium’s so-called “golden generation” and he was the only member of the Red Devils squad to emerge from Euro 2024 with any credit following another disappointing tournament.

But the Manchester City player was also the subject of heavy criticism at times from fans — he was booed after being announced as Player of the Match in the 0-0 group stage draw against Ukraine — and looked to be increasingly frustrated by the burden of carrying a team that no longer has the stars of previous years.

With uncertainty over his club future following a recent admission that he would consider a move to Saudi Arabia when his City contract expires in 2025, De Bruyne seems to be ready to wind down his glittering career.

And being a box-to-box midfielder in the searing heat of the U.S. and Mexico at the age of 35 is unlikely to appeal too much, especially if Belgium continue to decline.


The Real Madrid midfielder defied his age once again by emerging from Croatia’s disappointing Euros as their best performer.

But for Mattia Zaccagni’s dramatic equaliser for Italy, which came eight minutes into stoppage time and earned a 1-1 group stage draw that eliminated Croatia, Modric would have been the hero again. His goal in that game — when he became the oldest-ever scorer at a Euros — would have taken them into the knockout stages.

The former Tottenham player was distraught afterward and the picture of him receiving the Player of the Match award will be a defining image of the competition.

But don’t bet on it being the last time you see Modric in a Croatia shirt. He will be 40 years old at the next World Cup, but he remains an incredible athlete and he could still be playing.


Eriksen’s story is already remarkable when you consider that he almost lost his life when he collapsed due to a cardiac arrest during Denmark’s Euro 2020 game against Finland three years ago.

That he was able to return to football at all was an incredible achievement, never mind that he has done so at the highest level for club and country with Manchester United and Denmark.

Eriksen shone for the Danes during Euro 2024, but whether he continues until the next World Cup is likely to depend on how long he can, or wants to, prolong his club career.

The former Tottenham and Internazionale player is expected to leave United this summer, with interest from Turkish clubs, but if he can make the right move he might just make it to the next World Cup.


The Liverpool captain will be 33 next week, so if he is still playing for Netherlands at the World Cup he would be 35 in the latter stages of the tournament.

You only have to look at Pepe, still going strong for Portugal at the age of 41, for proof that the best defenders can use their game intelligence and experience to compensate for any loss of pace or movement, and Van Dijk’s football brain will still be sharp.

But with his contract at Anfield due to expire at the end of next season, Van Dijk’s club commitments will have a big input on whether he remains a fixture in the Dutch team.

Few countries change manager as often as the Dutch, so there is also the added uncertainty of whether Ronald Koeman will remain in post or if it will be a new coach for the World Cup — and if they will want to rebuild or stick with Van Dijk.

So there are some big unanswered questions about Van Dijk, but the odds favour him still being at the heart of the Dutch defence in 2026.


Pepe (Portugal, age 41)

Pepe is already the oldest outfield player at a European Championship and he became the oldest-ever goal scorer in the UEFA Champions League when netting for FC Porto last season, but can he stick around long enough to become the oldest outfield player at a World Cup?

Cameroon’s Roger Milla holds that distinction having played for his country at the age of 42 at USA ’94, but if Pepe plays for Portugal he will do so as a 43-year-old.

Portugal coach Roberto Martinez praised Pepe’s “genetics” earlier in this tournament and his importance to the team has seen him play in three of his country’s four games in Germany, missing only the group stage match against Georgia when Portugal had already qualified.

Age could yet catch up with Pepe quickly, but right now he looks as though he could still be playing in 2026.


And while the old stagers have been proving that age is no barrier at Euro 2024, there is another ageing superstar who is also playing in a major tournament this summer, so will he still be around in 2026?

When Messi lifted the World Cup in Qatar, it seemed the perfect ending to a glorious international career, but two years on and he is still playing for Argentina at the Copa América.

Having made the move to MLS last year following an unhappy two-year spell with Paris Saint-Germain, Messi has been revitalised with Inter Miami CF and there is now the real prospect of him extending his career all the way to the next World Cup.

He has made his home in the United States and become a superstar in the crowded sporting landscape alongside NBA and NFL players, so there will be a real temptation to target 2026 as the ultimate swansong to his career.

Messi has won everything at club and international level, so why not go for a farewell tour at the World Cup?

And there is also the small matter of Cristiano Ronaldo being around too. If Ronaldo is there, Messi will be too.


Source link

Scroll to Top