Steven Gerrard hinted at the profound yearning he still feels for elite football, several months on from his retirement, in an Instagram post of rare poignancy this week.
Alongside a photograph of him volleying the decisive goal in a Liverpool versus Real Madrid legends match a few days earlier, the former England captain wrote: “Can’t we do it all again next week?”
Opportunities to stoke the competitive fires are few and far between now for him and a raft of ex-professionals of a certain age, although this summer in London promises another chance.
Gerrard is one of the marquee names signed up to take part in Star Sixes, a new six-a-side event billed as a World Cup of legends that is to be staged for the first time at the O2 in July.
The four-day, 12-team tournament has been conceived as a football version of the ATP Tour Finals tennis and NBA basketball shows at the same venue, which present top-class sport with showbiz flourish.
It is also well placed to cater to a generation weaned on Twenty20 cricket and other bite-sized versions of popular sports, while satisfying the market’s seemingly bottomless demand for live football.
For the likes of Gerrard, Rio Ferdinand and Michael Owen, however, it is an outlet for the competitive urges of recently-retired greats whose fitness has endured as robustly as their appeal.
“They’re almost the first generation that have been proper professional athletes throughout their careers,” says Neil Bailey, acting chief executive of Star Sixes.
“They train every day as a matter of course. This has given some of them a focus. They crave the competition. They have one-off exhibition games around the world but it doesn’t really satiate them.”
England have been drawn to face Carles Puyol’s Spain, Scotland and Mexico at the O2, while other rivals include Brazil, France and Germany – represented by favourites such as Roberto Carlos, Robert Pires and Michael Ballack. Each have distinct motivations.
“The England team are determined to win something. They are the golden generation that didn’t win anything,” Bailey adds.
“The French team think they won everything in that era. The German team won everything in every era. The Italians have got a brilliant side.
"The Portuguese look at the current team and can’t believe they won the Euros; they think they’re the golden generation of Portugal.
“They’ve all made money, they’re not doing it for that. They’re doing it for the competitive edge, because they want to win again.”
Previous small-sided indoor football tournaments in Britain have tended to be low on athleticism, high on slapstick thrills. Organisers insist Star Sixes is a higher-calibre proposition.
“What transformed Masters [veterans’] tennis was John McEnroe getting involved, with his competitive streak, and wanting to make it professional,” Bailey says.
“He didn’t want to do trick shots with pot-bellied people. It’s the same with this. Steven Gerrard is fit. This is not an exhibition, it’s sport.”
Star Sixes is a joint venture between sports marketing agency Pitch International, which counts the Football Association and Rugby Football Union among its clients and came up with the concept, and agency Football Champions Tour, which helps to provide the talent.
Pitch International hit on the idea after being struck by the popularity of star-studded exhibition matches, such as David Beckham’s Unicef game at Old Trafford in 2015 which sold out in a weekend, says Bailey, who is also director of business development at Pitch International.
It is aimed at families, as a chance for parents to show their children how good their heroes were “instead of just talking about it every time they’re on TV”, he adds.
With between four and six matches per session, each lasting no more than 30 minutes, and entertainment in between, it is also a nod to changing appetites among a younger audience.
“For a whole generation it’s perhaps a more consumable buy,” Bailey says. “I don’t know that many people under the age of 20 who sit and watch a 90-minute football match on television.”
London was chosen for the launch event because it is “multicultural, with large international populations, and football mad”. If successful, organisers hope to turn it into a series of three events per year.
With 70,000 tickets over five sessions on offer, a UK television deal with Sky Sports, plus international broadcast contracts and sponsors in the pipeline, Star Sixes hopes to make £500,000-£1m profit per event.
Future tournaments would be staged in Europe, Asia and the Americas, with the demographics of the location playing a key role in determining the participating teams, as it did in London.
“There are 300,000 Nigerians in London so Nigeria are in it. There aren’t very many Argentinians and Argentina’s economy isn’t doing very well so they aren’t,” says Bailey.
A New York event is mooted, which could comprise the United States, Ireland, Italy and Mexico. So is a Home Nations version. Hope, then, that further winning volleys and Roy of the Rovers moments lie in wait for Gerrard.