Three former FIFA World Cup™ winners retired from football this year, having illuminated the 1990s and early 2000s with their talents. Brazilian striker Ronaldo, French midfielder Patrick Vieira and Italian defender Fabio Cannavaro all called time on their careers after years of delighting fans around the world with their on-pitch efforts.

Several other experienced campaigners such as Claude Makelele, Paul Scholes, Matias Almeyda and Marcelo Gallardo have also moved on to new challenges after many successful years in the game. bids farewell to these recent retirees, many of whom will now switch to the dugout to embark on coaching careers.

Former Brazil striker Ronaldo is undoubtedly the most high-profile retiree of the year. With 62 goals from 98 appearances, Ronaldo is second only to Pele in Brazil’s list of all-time leading goalscorers, and remains the highest scorer in FIFA World Cup finals history with 15 goals. Il Fenomeno netted 367 times in 531 matches at club level, including 104 in 177 games for Real Madrid, and won two FIFA World Cups with Brazil in 1994 and 2002, as well as a runners-up medal in 1998. He also won the FIFA World Player of the Year title three times, in 1996, 1997 and 2002.

Ronaldo possessed a blistering turn of pace, brilliant technical ability and a well-honed striker’s instinct, and his list of achievements is as long as it is impressive. He holds a special place in the hearts of Brazilian fans, many of whom considered him to be the natural successor to Pele.

When Ronaldo announced his retirement on 14 February 2011, he also revealed that he had been suffering for several years from hypothyroidism, an illness thought to be the root of his oft-publicised weight issues. “Lots of people must regret having made jokes about my weight. But I feel no anger towards anyone,” said the striker, who will be remembered as one of the greatest in history. “With this announcement, it feels like my first death. It’s very hard to abandon something that has made me so happy.”

International heroes call it a day
Exactly five years after Italy’s 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany final victory over France, Fabio Cannavaro decided to call time on his football career. Cannavaro, whose last spell as a player was in Dubai with Al-Ahli, retired at the age of 37 following a persistent knee injury. Amazingly, despite a 19-year career that included 16 years in Italian football with the likes of Napoli, Parma, Inter Milan and Juventus, Cannavaro never won a Serie A title. Fans will nevertheless remember him as the iconic captain who led Italy to their fourth FIFA World Cup crown, and as the country’s most-capped player ahead of Paolo Maldini and Dino Zoff.

Former France international Patrick Vieira was a losing finalist against Cannavaro’s Italy at Germany 2006, but also lifted the FIFA World Cup trophy in 1998. Vieira retired in the summer at the age of 35, having made 651 career appearances for various prestigious clubs including AC Milan, Arsenal, Juventus, Inter Milan and Manchester City. He followed up the France 1998 triumph with the UEFA EURO 2000 title, and was a key component in Les Bleus’ midfield in all 107 of his international appearances. With Vieira no longer on the scene, Thierry Henry, Robert Pires and David Trezeguet are the only remaining members of the France 1998-winning side still playing professional football.

Vieira is now part of the backroom staff at Manchester City, and he appears to be relishing his new role. “I don’t yet know what I’ll specialise in, so I’m spending time in all areas of the club, watching and learning,” said the former France captain.

Staying in France, Claude Makelele hung up his boots on 29 May this year at the age of 38. The tireless ball-winner made 880 appearances for a total of seven different clubs, and earned 71 international caps with France. Makelele played in title-winning teams in three different countries (Nantes in 1995, Real Madrid in 2001 and Chelsea in 2005 and 2006), and finished his career at Paris Saint-Germain, where he now works in an advisory role.

Three Red Devils retire
In England, former Manchester United mainstay Paul Scholes (36) announced on 31 May that he was retiring from professional football to join the club’s coaching staff. Scholes’ remarkable career included 14 goals in 66 international appearances, as well as ten league titles, three FA Cups, two UEFA Champions League winner’s medals and an Intercontinental Cup.

Scholes was known as a man of few words during his playing days, but he certainly seems to have found his voice in retirement. “The England team these days are treated like world superstars from what they do at club level," he said. "I don’t think this helps when they go to England [duty] because they’re all mollycoddled and pampered.”

Another cornerstone of recent Manchester United sides also decided to call it a day earlier this year. Indeed, right-back and former England international Gary Neville retired back in February, shortly before his 36th birthday. “I have been a Manchester United fan all my life and fulfilled every dream I’ve ever had,” Neville said in a statement. “I have played in the most incredible football teams, playing with and against some of the best players in the world and I have been lucky to have been part of the team’s achievements and the club’s great success.” Neville’s brother Phil, 34, continues to play for Everton.

Dutch goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar completes the trio of recently-retired Manchester United stars. Van der Sar is the Netherlands’ most-capped player with 130 appearances, and was named Best European Goalkeeper on four occasions during his career. He followed in the footsteps of the legendary Italian goalkeeper Dino Zoff by retiring at the age of 40, deciding it was “time to devote more attention to my family”. Van der Sar was Manchester United’s No1 between 2005 and 2011, and made his final appearance in United’s 3-1 Champions League final defeat by Barcelona on 28 May 2011.

Danish fans bade farewell to Jon Dahl Tomasson, who retired from football to become assistant manager of Dutch club Excelsior. The striker scored 52 goals in 112 international appearances for Denmark. It was a similar tale for for 37-year-old defender Sami Hyypia, who retired from his playing role at Bayer Leverkusen to join the club’s backroom team. The former Finland international had spent ten seasons at the heart of Liverpool’s defence before he joined Leverkusen.

Spanish midfielder Ivan de la Pena, who made his name under Johan Cruyff at Barcelona, announced his retirement in May at the age of 35. The gifted but injury-prone attacking midfielder won several titles over the years but never quite hit the heights his talent deserved, arriving on the scene too early to be part of the free-flowing Barça sides of the last few years.

Successful switch for Gallardo
South America also witnessed a number of high-profile retirements this year, particularly in Argentina, where a talented generation of players waved goodbye to the game. Among them were spring-heeled defender Roberto Ayala, a formidable aerial presence who won 115 international caps, and striker Martin Palermo, who struggled in Europe but enjoys hero status as Boca Juniors’ leading scorer with 236 goals in 404 matches. Defensive midfielder Matias Almeyda, capped 39 times for the Albiceleste, retired from playing at River Plate to become their coach the day after the club's historic relegation to the second tier of Argentinian football.

Diminutive Argentinian playmaker Marcelo Gallardo finished his career in similar fashion. Gallardo retired from playing in early June at the end of his final season with Uruguayan outfit Nacional de Montevideo, before taking the reins as coach on the final day of the month. He made an instant impact, winning his first Apertura title just a few months later.