Happy Birthday Lionel Messi: What Were The Other Great Players Doing At 36?

The Argentine icon is heading to Miami to start a new adventure
08:01, 24 Jun 2023

If he can find time between finding a new pad in Miami and finally getting a holiday, Lionel Messi will blow out the candles on a cake today for his 36th birthday. One of the greatest players the world has ever seen, if not the greatest of all, is reaching the twilight of his career and is now unlikely to add to his 129 Champions League goals and four European Cups. 

With Inter Miami his newest, and arguably biggest challenge so far, Messi’s time in elite football has come to a close but at the age of 36 he is set to win his eight Ballon d’Or - due to that epic World Cup win. That will make him the second oldest Ballon d’Or winner, after Sir Stanley Mattews who remarkably won it at 41 in the inaugural year of 1956. 

But what were the other greats of football doing at the age of 36? We’ve taken a look back through history to find out. 


Cristiano Ronaldo 

The man that defines longevity. Ronaldo was at Juventus scoring goals when his 36th birthday came and won the Golden Boot in Serie A that summer. But a few months later, he made the decision to rejoin Manchester United. 

The goals kept coming, but soon the relationship between himself and the club soured, as he was evidently making the team worse. 36 was ultimately not a year to remember for Ronaldo, but he was still scoring goals for one of the biggest teams on the planet. 


Having won his third World Cup by the age of 30 and started his career at 15, it may come as a surprise that Pele was still playing when his 36th birthday came around. He had come out of retirement from Santos with New York Cosmos and just like Messi, became the biggest soccer star the United States had ever seen.

He was a hit on and off the pitch and attracted the likes of Franz Beckenbauer and Carlos Alberto to the New York Cosmos. In 1976, at the age of 36, he scored 13 goals in 22 matches while the following year he won the Soccer Bowl. Pele was a huge hit way into his 30s. 

Diego Maradona

Maradona was not able to produce quite the same level of longevity as Pele. He was back home, playing for Boca Juniors by the time his 36th birthday came but his cocaine habit and drug addiction had well and truly taken hold. His Napoli days were phenomenal but he had begun to go off the rails by the time the 1994 World Cup came. 

He lasted just two games before failing a drugs test and being sent home. Those bulging eyeballs were a sight to behold and a 15-month ban followed. He returned to Boca but was barely involved by the time he turned 36, while at that same age he played alongside his brother in a friendly match v Canadian National League Soccer All- Stars. His time at the top was short-lived, but magnificent. 

Johan Cruyff

By the time he was 36, Johan Cruyff was back at Ajax, the club he loved so dearly after spells in Spain and the United States. His return to his homeland was a success as he won the Dutch Cup, but his playing relationship with Ajax fell apart as they refused to offer him a new contract. He retaliated by signing for Feyenoord for the following season and at 36, he ran the show. 

He played in all but one league match as Feyenoord won the Eredivisie for the first time in a decade, also won the KNVB Cup and was named Dutch Footballer of the Year for the fifth time. One of the greatest, even at 36.

Ronaldinho, Ronaldo and the rest

For all of his immense quality on the ball, Ronaldinho stopped playing in Europe at 31. He played in several places around Brazil until he was 35, when he eventually called time on his career. But that has been the norm for several of the elite players of the previous generation.

Zinedine Zidane headbutted Marco Matterrazzi to bring an end to his playing career in 2006, when he was just 34. Brazilian Ronaldo retired at 35 while playing for Corinthians after several serious injuries. Steven Gerrard was done and dusted at 36 after a year in LA. Kaka is still only 41, and five years ago he had already retired having played in Orlando for three seasons. 

Playing at the highest level at 36 isn’t normal, even for the very best. Messi might not be starring in Europe anymore, but being the first player to win the Ballon d’Or while playing over there is pretty damn cool. He’s won everything there is to win, now it's time to kick back in Miami. 

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