The festive period and turn of the year is traditionally a period of regeneration, farewells, celebration and no little nostalgia, and the world of Argentine football is no exception. In the past week, as well as crowning a new Copa Argentina champion, the game bore witness to the final send-off for a host of favourites, who picked the end of the 2021 season as the moment to hang up their boots once and for all.
Newell's Old Boys legend Maximiliano Rodríguez and River Plate's Leonardo Ponzio both received moving ovations as they lined up in front of their own fans for the very last time. Rodríguez's farewell was the highlight of an otherwise wholly forgettable 0-0 draw against Banfield on Monday as, perched on the shoulders of his team-mates, he drew the curtain on a career which took in successful spells at European giants Liverpool and Atlético Madrid and no fewer than three World Cup campaigns, including the match-winning penalty that sent Argentina to the 2014 final at the expense of the Netherlands.
“This is really a very difficult time to talk. A lot of things come to mind, from when I started out, all the effort and sacrifice... I want to thank my family, who always supported me,” Maxi, who bows out at the grand old age of 40, affirmed. “We have been through tough times and they were always there, they wanted me to fulfil my dream of playing in the Primera División.
“This is unique, I am leaving with this photo that I will never forget.”
Over in Núñez, meanwhile, Ponzio received the warmth of the Monumental crowd for the last time as a player in the champions' 3-2 defeat to Defensa y Justicia – but the tale might not be quite over yet. Coach Marcelo Gallardo, whose decision to stay on for another year on Wednesday was greeted in ecstatic fashion by the Millonario faithful, has offered the 39-year-old midfielder the chance to remain at the club in a backroom capacity, although he is yet to receive an answer.
Having left the relative security of Spain back in 2012 to slog it out for River at their lowest ebb in the B Nacional, whatever Ponzio chooses his hero status with the club is already assured, and few would begrudge him if he ultimately decides to stay with his horses – a keen equestrian, he has said previously that he would like to become a polo player upon retirement – than jump straight back onto the bench.
There will also be a heartfelt goodbye in Racing Club's El Cilindro on Saturday as Academia idol Lisandro López pulls on his No. 15 shirt for the final time at home to Godoy Cruz. At 38, though, it is not clear still whether the striker is saying farewell to the Avellaneda side or in football in general. Retirement is a possibility, but he might also be tempted to line up for hometown club Sarmiento de Junín in 2022, as he plans to move back to the city in order to be closer to his family. Argentine football's two elder statesmen, José Sand (41) and Cristian Lucchetti (43), meanwhile, seem to have no plans to stop just yet, despite the former becoming the Primera's eldest goalscorer over the course of the current season.
Rodríguez, Ponzio and López have all represented their respective clubs with loyalty and distinction over the past years, and their departure raises a nagging question: who will be the next men to step into their shoes? As this column has stated on a number of occasions the talent drain to Europe and elsewhere continues to hobble the overall ability of the Primera, with the result that it is often the veterans who step in to lend a touch of class to proceedings despite their aching joints.
There may nevertheless be a few reasons to be optimistic. Argentina's three champions in 2021, River, Copa Argentina winners Boca Juniors and Copa Liga Profesional holders Colón, were all aided by talented youngsters, from the Millo's top scorer Julián Álvarez to Xeneize promises Cristian Medina, Agustín Almendra and Luis Vázquez and the brilliant Colón teenager Facundo Farias. The new generation is slowly raising its head, and in 10 or 15 years' time we might just be talking about a few of its stars in the same breath as the distinguished cohort that is bowing out in time to enjoy the holidays.