6 players from World Cup 2002 we can’t believe are still playing in 2023

Think back to where you were in your life during the 2002 World Cup and it’s likely you were in a very different place to where you are now. Yet, incredibly, we have found eight players who played in that tournament and are still professional footballers now, over 20 years later.

It takes something really special to achieve this feat. Firstly, you’ve got to be good enough for a World Cup squad when in, or barely out of, your teens. Then you’ve got to keep chugging along for a full 20 years as a pro, with all the physical exertion and knocks that entails.

We’ve picked out the six players who – so far as we can tell – are the only ones from the tournament in Japan and Korea to still be playing for money now.

Gianluigi Buffon

The Italian shot-stopper is a timeless football icon. And, remarkably, 2002 wasn’t even his first World Cup.

He’d been to the 1998 tournament in France as a 20-year-old as a backup option to Gianluca Pagliuca, but he did not play a game.

He was first choice by 2002, having taken the gloves prior to Euro 2000, but Buffon’s first World Cup did not go to plan. Italy were eliminated in the round of 16 by South Korea’s extra-time golden goal, despite Buffon saving a controversial penalty in normal time. It wasn’t the only moment of controversy in that game, if you recall!

Not to worry. Buffon won the thing four years later as the penalty shootout hero in the final and has amassed 11 league titles, dozens of other domestic honours and a UEFA Cup in a glittering career.

He’s now back at Parma where it all began in the mid-90s and, aged 45, he remains their No.1.

Junichi Inamoto

Best remembered on English shores for a very brief loan at Arsenal and stints at Fulham and West Brom, Inamoto was five years into his professional career by the time his home World Cup rolled around.

Indeed, he had just been released by Arsenal when the tournament started – and they might have regretted that decision slightly as he scored two goals from midfield, against Belgium and Russia in the group stages.

After his time in England and spells in Turkey, Germany and France, Inamoto returned to his homeland in 2010 and has played in the Japanese leagues ever since.

He is now turning out for Nankatsu SC, which is named after a fictional team in the famous manga Captain Tsubasa and owned by the manga’s author. They currently compete in the first division of the Kanto Soccer League, the fifth tier of Japanese football.

When asked for the secret to his longevity by Friday Digital earlier this year, he said: “I don’t drink any alcohol, and I try not to consume anything that my body doesn’t need. I eat frequently at night, and I try to get at least eight hours of sleep.”

We’re not quite sure how eating frequently at night and eight hours of sleep work together, but we’ll take his word for it.

Shinji Ono

Born just nine days after Inamoto, his international team-mate was at Feyenoord at the time of the 2002 World Cup and has since played in Germany and Australia as well as his native Japan.

Unlike Inamoto, though, he has not dropped down the division. Ono plays for Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo in the J1 League, though he is used sparingly.

Bartholomew Ogbeche

Now aged 38, Ogbeche has spent the last five years playing in the Indian Super League. He’s currently turning out for Hyderabad and is the league’s all-time top scorer.

But in 2002, he was was a 17-year-old wonderkid and surprise inclusion in the Nigeria squad. He was playing for PSG at the time and had made his professional debut that season.

He never settled at the Parisian club, though, joining UAE Pro League side Al Jazira after two loans. From there, his career became truly nomadic and he played for a further 12 clubs in five countries, including a year with Middlesbrough in 2011-12.

The highlight of his time in the North East was this cracker against West Ham, which caused Sam Allardyce’s chewing gum to take a real beating.

Roque Santa Cruz

Will he ever stop? Probably not. And nor should he, he’s still magnificent.

We remember Santa Cruz most fondly as the man who crushed the Barclays in Mark Hughes’ (actually very good) Blackburn team.

He’s had plenty of other good moments too, mind you, with Bayern Munich, Malaga, and as part of that wild Paraguay squad in 2002, which also included nutcase goalscoring ‘keeper Jose Luis Chilavert.

Santa Cruz eventually racked up 132 caps and went to two more World Cups.

This year, he made the controversial move from Olimpia, the club where he made his name in the 90s and where he’d spent the last six years, to their Asuncion rivals Libertad.

He started the derby against Olimpia last May and, well, you know what we’re about to say next…


Carlos Kameni

A real prodigious talent, Cameroonian goalkeeper Kameni won an Olympic gold medal as a 16-year-old in 2000 and was part of his country’s senior squad that went to the World Cup two years later.

He didn’t play a game as Cameroon were eliminated a the group stage, but he returned to football’s grandest stage in 2010 and was expected to start in goal. Manager Paul Le Guen preferred Souleymanou Hamidou, however, and Kameni again watched on as Cameroon fell to an early elimination.

At club level, he made himself a hero in Spain, first with Espanyol, where he won a Copa del Rey and helped them to the UEFA Cup final, then with Malaga as part of the squad that reached the Champions League quarter-finals.

He’s now at UE Santa Coloma in Andorra after a spell with Arta/Solar 7 in Djibouti, where he played alongside his former international team-mate Alex Song.

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