There is, sadly, a cut off point for all professional footballers. It is often when they are mentally at their peak that their bodies give in. Many careers are ended by long-term injuries from which a player never recovers, whilst others just grow too slow to be able to compete at the highest level. This list though, is for those who were still good enough and fit enough but jacked it in anyway, although some did later return to the game, going back on their original decision.
As such, you will find no Marco van Basten, no Brian Laudrup and no Dean Ashton, all of whom were forced to retire young through nasty injuries. The list is also restricted only to those who were quality footballers, or at least good enough to play for a respectable team in a reputable division. Over 75% of professional footballers retire before the age of 25, but that is usually because they are not earning enough money and want to seek out a more long-term career from a young age.
Every player on this list was a fit and talented individual who could have made a very lucrative living through football when they retired but chose to move on to new pastures. There are a surprisingly high number of French players which is immediately noticeable, as well as three former Manchester United players. Here are the top 20 soccer players who retired too young.
20 David Bentley
David Bentley officially retired in June 2014, at the age of 29, although he had been without a club for over a year before that. A product of the Arsenal youth academy, Bentley was signed by Tottenham in 2008, in a deal potentially worth £17 million. Described by Steve McClaren as the next David Beckham, Bentley played seven games for England before his decline in form began. Spurs had shipped Bentley out on loan four times before releasing him and his retirement, but the wide man obviously still had quality. He later revealed that the reasons for his retirement was down to a loss of love for the game. He now owns a restaurant in Marbella.
19 Shane Supple
Shane Supple is probably the least well-known name on this list and rightly so as he played at the lowest level of anyone on this list. Having said that, Supple was only 22 years old when he retired from the game, and as a goalkeeper it is probably safe to assume he was nowhere near his peak when he made that decision. Despite his age, Supple had played 43 games, 34 coming with Championship side Ipswich Town, with whom he also won the FA Youth Cup. The former Ireland U21 international gave up soccer for Gaelic football, which he still plays today for Dublin.
18 Emmanuel Petit
Emmanuel Petit played alongside an incredible list of players, including Bergkamp, Henry, Zidane, Vieira, Xavi, Rivaldo, Guardiola, Lampard, Crespo and more, and he was also not a bad player himself. Petit began life as a defender but ended up as a supremely effective deep-lying midfielder, breaking up play and passing incisively. He won titles in France and England, as well as a European Cup and a World Cup. Some would claim Petit's retirement was forced through injury, but having undergone knee surgery he appeared to be fit again. Bolton offered him a contract but he had obviously made his mind up, and he retired aged 32.
17 Darko Pancev
Darko Pancev had a very unusual career. He was the 1991 European Golden Boot winner and the Ballon d'Or runner-up in the same year, scoring 40 goals in 43 games for Red Star Belgrade in a season in which Red Star won both the league title and the European Cup. That summer he became the most expensive player in the world when he joined Inter Milan, but his career in the Serie A never took off. He scored three goals in three years at Inter and after brief stints with Leipzig, Dusseldorf and Sion, Pancev retired aged 31. It is a great shame Pancev retired so early instead of, perhaps, returning to Red Star and seeing if he could recapture his previous form and obvious ability.
16 Hidetoshi Nakata
Hidetoshi Nakata is regarded as one of Japan and Asia's greatest ever footballers. He was named Asia's best player in 1997 and 1998 before moving to Roma where he won the title in Italy. Moves to Parma and Fiorentina followed before Nakata made the shocking decision to retire, then aged just 29, when some considered him to be at the peak of his powers. Nakata said the decision was based on the fact soccer was all he had ever known, and he was keen to travel the world and learn new things. Despite retiring so young, Nakata represented Japan at three World Cups, winning 77 caps. Since retirement Nakata has been involved in fashion and modelling and is often described as an Asian David Beckham.
15 Paul Scholes
Okay, okay, so Paul Scholes was 36 when he retired in 2011, which is a fairly ordinary age for a midfielder to retire, but Scholes was still capable of playing at the highest level. Like Ryan Giggs, Scholes had been well-managed by Sir Alex Ferguson and had looked after himself physically and altered his game with age. Yet Giggs played until he was 40. Of course, Scholes was eventually persuaded to change his mind, returning for a season, and in those 33 games he showed why he should never have hung up his boots. Scholes certainly hadn't lost his ability to control a game at 36, and would probably still have played 20-plus games for United last season had he still been playing for the club.
14 Patrick Kluivert
Patrick Kluivert was a revelation when he broke into Ajax's Golden Generation alongside the likes of Marc Overmars, Clarence Seedorf, Edgar Davids and Edwin van der Sar. As an 18-year-old, Kluivert scored the winner in a Champions League final. His best days came with Ajax and Barcelona, in which time he won eight trophies and averaged a goal a game. However, after moving to Newcastle in 2004, his career began to decline, despite being only 28 years old. Moves to Valencia, PSV and Lille failed to change anything and in 2008, aged 32, Holland's second all-time top scorer retired.
13 Jurgen Klinsmann
Today, Jurgen Klinsmann is the manager of the U.S. Mens National Team, but back in the 1990s, he was one of Germany's greatest forwards. He was prolific for Stuttgart, Inter Milan, Monaco, Tottenham and Bayern Munich, as well as for the German national team. Klinsmann's last employers were Sampdoria, who he left in 1998 and retired shortly after, aged 34. During his playing days, he won a World Cup and a European Championship, as well as finishing a Ballon d'Or runner-up in 1995. He did return to soccer in 2003, playing eight games for Orange County Blue Star.
12 Kevin Keegan
Two-time Ballon d'Or winner Kevin Keegan is one of the game's earliest superstars and for good reason too. He won the Premier League, FA Cup, European Cup and UEFA Cup with Liverpool before heading off to Hamburg, where he won the aforementioned individual accolades. He added a further title in Germany, before returning to England with Southampton this time. Keegan was equally prolific on the south coast and with Newcastle, his last professional club. Keegan scored 48 goals in 78 games for Newcastle but retired in 1984, aged 33, he could have played for at least three more years.
Of course, Pele did eventually play until the ripe old age of 37, but he first retired in 1974, after leaving Santos. When he first retired, Pele was only 34, and still one of the most prolific goalscorers in Brazil. When Pele was eventually persuaded to come out of retirement by the New York Cosmos, a year after leaving the game, he was still a top class player. He took American soccer with ease, scoring over 30 goals in 56 games in the big apple. Pele has won three World Cups, more than any other player.
10 Frank Rijkaard
Another Dutchman who emerged from the fine Ajax academy but retired too early is that of Frank Rijkaard. Able to play in both defense and midfield, Rijkaard ultimately became one of the most complete defensive midfielders of all-time. He was named the 21st best player of the last 50 years in UEFA's Golden Jubilee poll, ahead of the likes of David Beckham, Michael Laudrup and Bobby Moore. He came third in the Ballon d'Or voting on two occasions and won the title four times at Ajax, twice at AC Milan, the Champions League three times and the European Championships once. Rijkaard retired aged 33, whilst he was still one of Europe's top midfielders, he won the Champions League final in his last ever game.
9 Didier Deschamps
Famously once described as a "water boy" by Eric Cantona, Deschamps went on to become France's most successful captain of all time, with the team winning both a World Cup and European Championship under his leadership. He also won multiple titles in France and Italy, as well as two Champions League trophies and an FA Cup in England. An industrious and intelligent holding midfielder, Deschamps' defensive qualities allowed the likes of Zinedine Zidane, Abedi Pele, Rudi Voller, Del Piero, Davids and others who played alongside him to be freed up. Deschamps retired after a season on loan at Valencia, where he helped the team to a further Champions League final, but he was only 32 when he hung up his boots.
8 Espen Baardsen
Goalkeepers commonly tend to stay in the game for longer than outfield players, due to the reduced physical demands of being a goalkeeper, but not our next two entries though. Espen Baardsen was born in the U.S. to Norwegian parents, whilst playing in San Francisco, he caught the attention of Tottenham scouts, who brought him to London. He made his debut against Arsenal in the North London derby at just 20 and appeared to have a bright future ahead of him. He transferred to Watford and then Everton, as well as earning four caps for Norway, before retiring at just 25. He said he had lost interest in soccer and now works for a London-based asset management company.
7 Carlos Roa
The third and final goalkeeper on this list, Carlos Roa was the pick of the bunch. Roa starred for Argentina in the 1998 World Cup as the South Americans defeated England on penalties. He won the Zamora Award as the best goalkeeper in Spain the same year and reached the Cup Winners' Cup the year later. Then, in 1999, aged 30 and at the peak of his powers, Roa decided to call it a day. He hung up his gloves claiming he believed the world was going to end imminently and went on a religious retreat, in an unusual turn of events. The world didn't end, and Roa returned to soccer after over a year out of the game, but never quite recaptured his post-epiphany form.
6 Zinedine Zidane
Zinedine Zidane may well have been 34 when he retired, which is not particularly young to retire, but everyone in soccer knew he had so much more to give. He was quite possibly still the best midfielder in the world, and it was saddening to see him end such a glittering career in disgrace with the infamous Materazzi headbutt in the 2006 World Cup final. There had been hopes that the nature of Zidane's departure would force him to change his mind but sadly, he did not. One of the most graceful players to have played the game, Zidane could probably get in most top flight teams today, aged 43.
5 Zbigniew Boniek
Zbigniew Boniek is widely regarded as Poland's greatest ever player, and he was voted the countries best player of the last 50 years in the UEFA Jubilee Poll. Boniek was a magician with the ball at his feet, and after 7 years of playing in Poland, he was snapped up by Juventus. Boniek played mostly as a second striker in Italy, where he spent three years, before ending his career with Roma in 1988. Boniek was only 32 when he called it a day, which is a great shame, as he would have walked into almost any team in the world at that age, and was still very fit.
4 Michel Platini
Named by FIFA as the sixth greatest player of the century in 2000, Platini was an expert passer of the ball, a free-kick specialist and a wonderfully intelligent player. He won the Ballon d'Or three times; only Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, Johan Cruyff and Marco van Basten can match that. At club level he won titles in France and Italy, as well as a European Cup with Juventus. At the international level he captained France to success at the 1984 European Championships. Platini retired at the age of 32, just a year after being named in the World Cup team of the tournament, some indication of the class he still had.
3 Eric Cantona
Eric Cantona was once voted as Manchester United's greatest ever player, in all truth, that's probably stretching it a bit, but there is a reason he has such an iconic status at the club. Hailed as 'King Eric', Cantona spent six seasons at Manchester United, winning four Premier League titles and 2 FA Cup's, scoring just under 100 goals. Cantona was technically superb and has an incredible highlights reel of world class goals, he was never a player who relied upon speed. Yet he retired at the age of 30, when he had at least half a decade left in him at the highest level. Cantona revealed he wanted to be able to go out with friends, drink, etc, all the things he couldn't do as an elite athlete.
2 Mario de Castro
Mario de Castro is the most clinical goalscorer in world soccer history. His record of 195 goals in 100 games, averaging 1.95 goals per game, cannot be matched. An intellectual, Castro studied medicine whilst playing in Brazil. De Castro and his two strike partners became known as the 'Damned Trio', and de Castro was the star of the show. All three retired too early, but de Castro was the most notable. The best player in Brazil at the time, he retired aged 26, after a club director shot an opposing fan. Shocked and appalled, de Castro left the game immediately. He was honored by Atletico Mineiro in 2008.
1 George Best
George Best first announced his retirement at the end of the 1972 season, aged just 26 and having been Manchester United's top scorer for the third consecutive season. Best did continue to play before announcing his retirement once more and leaving Manchester United aged 28, in 1974. This was of course far too young for one of the game's greatest ever natural talents. He came back to soccer over a year later, at Stockport County but didn't really play regularly until moving to the U.S. in 1976. Best played for nine different teams after Manchester United, finally finishing his playing career aged 28, but the truth is that second retirement when he left the club in 1974 was the end for Best and the last time we saw his true ability. It is a travesty such a player's career effectively ended at 28.