15 years ago, it seemed impossible that Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo would one day not be the best in the world.
These days, Ronaldo is inflating his bank balance, if not his reputation, in Saudi Arabia while Messi was just booed off in his last outing for PSG.
Gone are the days of Messi and Ronaldo winning back-to-back Ballons d’Or and the last time either of them won the Champions League was 2018.
The era of Messi and Ronaldo is unquestionably over but as is always the case with great sporting stars, the question is: did we enjoy it enough while it was happening? Did we appreciate the greatness unfolding in front of our eyes week after week? Or did we spend too long focusing on what comes next?
Sport has a habit of doing that. Building a star up so high until they reach an almost deity level, untouchable by the common person, then asking when will be their downfall.
In the last few years alone, some of the all-time sporting greats have called it quits. Tom Brady retired, came back, then retired again, Roger Federer succumbed to his injuries, his great friend and rival Rafa Nadal will soon do the same. Serena Williams departed in 2022 and Tiger Woods had to withdraw from the 2023 Masters through injury while LeBron James is two years away from hitting 40.
Lewis Hamilton now faces questions over his long-term future as he too prepares for his fifth decade of life, which makes it all the more bizarre that someone 13 years his junior is answering similar questions.
Max Verstappen is 25 years old and yet all anyone can do of late is talk about when he may hang up his F1 racing gloves. It is not without cause either, for Verstappen has frequently stated his desire to leave F1 earlier than many would anticipate.
The most likely retirement point appears to be following the end of his current Red Bull contract which runs until 2028 – but that is still four and a half years’ worth of racing away.
The question of where do you see yourself in five years is often one reserved for job interviews or awkward Tinder first dates, yet it is something that has been put to Verstappen over and over again.
There is a fascination behind it, of course. How can someone who stands to rewrite records and make history just choose to walk away? But to ask that is to misunderstand Verstappen, for he has never been one to care for statistics.
“I’ve never been interested in breaking records,” he said before his 40th F1 win in Spain. “Because these things only happen if you are lucky enough to be in a good car for a long time. Not everyone has that luxury.
“If, after this year, it’s not happening again, that’s what it is.”
He elaborated on that further in an interview with The Times where he suggested should everything suddenly “go to sh*t”, he would have no problem with it.
The one goal in Verstappen’s life was to become a Formula 1 World Champion, something he first achieved in 2021 and then again in 2022. In Verstappen’s mind, anything from now is just a nice bonus.
“Initially, when I got into Formula 1,” he told The Times, “what worried me was: will I get a car that allows me to show what I can do out there? Luckily I got into that position. Say it all goes to sh*t now? Whatever — I’ve already done everything I want to do in Formula 1.
“Because I won my first title and then my second so, for me, I’ve won everything in Formula 1 that I could win.
“There are no new goals in Formula 1 because once you have achieved everything, that is it.”
Why then, are we so obsessed with when Verstappen will call it quits rather than enjoying the here and now? Regardless of what stage, Verstappen’s career has always been an engrossing one.
From the young talent breaking onto the F1 stage to the only legitimate challenger to Hamilton’s supremacy – and now a complete blend of driver and machine producing dominant win after dominant win.
F1 fans have been spoilt since the turn of the century when it comes to generational talent. Michael Schumacher was followed by Fernando Alonso and then Sebastian Vettel. The 2010s echoed in the era of Hamilton and now the 2020s looked to be shaped by Max Verstappen.
If 2015 to 2020 was him cutting his teeth, 2021 was his ascension from potential great to bona fide champion. In 2022, he went a step beyond still and now he has entered a period so few drivers will ever experience. The feeling of being at the very top of your game and the effortless brilliance that it brings.
So while the 2023 season may not be as breathtaking or as competitive as 2021, there is another element to admire and that is of a driver who makes the impossible look easy, who is quite clearly at the peak of his powers and has the world in front of him in terms of what he could achieve.
Verstappen may retire from F1 in 2028, he may retire in 2038, but to wish any of his years away would be a crime for it is only after these greats are gone that you realise just quite how good they really were.