DOHA: Lionel Messi left the World Cup stage for the final time in the most dramatic way possible on Sunday, headlining a lengthy list of global giants bidding farewell to football's biggest tournament.
Messi dazzled in Doha as Argentina beat France 4-2 on penalties at the Lusail Stadium after one of the greatest finals in history finished 3-3, with the diminutive forward scoring twice.
The 35-year-old picked up the Golden Ball for the best player of the World Cup, finishing one goal behind Kylian Mbappe in the race for the Golden Boot.
It was a radically different story in Qatar for Cristiano Ronaldo, who has dominated football for a generation alongside Messi.
The 37-year-old, currently clubless, learned with a jolt that despite his pedigree he is no longer an automatic starter for Portugal, a team he has captained for so long.
Ronaldo headed down the tunnel with tears streaming down his face after the team's shock 1-0 defeat by Morocco in the quarter-finals, knowing his final chance to win the trophy had gone.
"In the five World Cups I played, always alongside great players and supported by millions of Portuguese, I gave it my all," he said in an Instagram post.
"I left everything on the field. I never turned my back on the fight and I never gave up on this dream."
Neymar was also overcome with emotion after Brazil's quarter-final exit at the hands of Croatia, saying he was "psychologically destroyed" and hinting that he could may have played his last match for his country.
The forward missed two games in Qatar with an injury but returned to equal Pele's record goalscoring haul of 77 goals for the Selecao.
Neymar, at 30, is signficantly younger than Paris Saint-Germain teammate Messi so if he wants to continue, there is every chance he could play at the next World Cup in North America and Mexico.
Pele himself has urged Neymar to "keep inspiring us".
Luka Modric, who won the Ballon d'Or in 2018, has surely played his final World Cup match at the age of 37.
The Real Madrid midfield schemer is still the man who makes Croatia tick and inspired them to the semi-finals in Qatar, four years after they reached the final against France in Russia.
Following the third-place play-off against Morocco, which Croatia won, he said he would extend his international career into 2023 in an attempt to win the Nations League.
Poland's Robert Lewandowski, 34, finally scored the first World Cup goal of his career, netting in his team's group-stage win against Saudi Arabia.
But the Barcelona forward was equivocal over whether he would be back at another World Cup after his team were knocked out by France in the last 16.
"Physically I'm not afraid of this but we have so many different things outside of football, whether your happiness is still there and what's going on around so it's tough to say now," Lewandowski said.
Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani, who have led Uruguay's attack for a generation, finished goalless in Qatar but did not go quietly.
Suarez, 35, tweeted angrily after their group-stage exit, alleging that Uruguay were not given the respect they were owed while Cavani angrily knocked over the VAR monitor.
Germany's former World Cup winner Thomas Mueller, 33, failed to score and suffered the bitter disappointment of a second straight group-stage exit.
Belgium star Eden Hazard will definitely not be back after announcing his retirement from international football after the team exited at the group stage.
The Real Madrid forward was the standard-bearer of Belgium's much-vaunted "golden generation", which reached the semi-finals at the 2018 World Cup in Russia but flopped in Qatar.
Gareth Bale, 33, barely made an impact in Qatar, despite playing a key role in Wales' qualification campaign. A single penalty against the United States was his only major impact.
He said he wants to "keep going as long as I can" for Wales but is unlikely to play another World Cup.
Current Ballon d'Or holder Karim Benzema did not even get the chance to say goodbye, suffering an injury before the tournament started.
The Real Madrid star has played in just one World Cup, in 2014. At the age of 34 his chance of another may have gone forever. -- AFP