There are no happy endings in sport. That, at least, tends to be the script in an unforgiving environment. Brutal realism tends to pervade, rather than the romantic. Those looking to conclude their careers on a high are often disappointed. They depart with the evidence of decline all too apparent and the abiding sense that parting would have been a sweeter sorrow had it occurred earlier. Look at Fabio Cannavaro and Thierry Henry, to name but two in this World Cup.
Then there is the radiant anomaly. Shining in brilliant orange, Giovanni van Bronckhorst's playing days will end tonight. It is the fairy-tale finale. "Every game here could have been the last of my career," he said after the quarter-final victory over Brazil. Instead it may conclude with the left-back winning the World Cup. That Holland even have the opportunity to do so owes much to their captain.
Van Bronckhorst unleashed an unstoppable shot from 41 yards to open the scoring in the semi-final against Uruguay; he later headed off his own line. "There were no tears, just joy," he said afterwards. "The last game in my career and it's a World Cup final. What can you say? It could not be more beautiful. I hope it will be the most beautiful game of my life. For everyone, it will be the game of their life."
The game of his life is also the last match. It could finish with Van Bronckhorst bracketed with Franz Beckenbauer, Bobby Moore, Diego Maradona and Lothar Matthaus in the select group of World Cup-winning captains. He would not be one of the likelier members. An unlikely brand of greatness beckons, the product of more persistence than genius. Van Bronckhorst has had moments of magnificence, such as the wonderful counter-attacking goal against Italy in Euro 2008 and the strike against Uruguay, but longevity has been his defining feature. He bows out today, aged 35, 14 years after his international debut.
Together with the centre-back, Andre Ooijer, he is the sole survivor of the last Dutch squad to reach the World Cup semi-finals. Unsurprisingly, given the gifts of the midfielders chosen then, he did not take to the field in 1998, when they were beaten on penalties by Brazil at the penultimate hurdle. But reinvention has brought its rewards; he has become a fixture at left-back, operating in defence for his country long before he was considered a full-back by his various clubs. However, Van Bronckhorst has always possessed a sweet left foot and the semi-final strike was a reminder that flair accompanies functionality in this Dutch side.
He began the tournament by representing his country for the 100th time in the opening game against Denmark. The Dutch greats, Johan Cruyff and Johan Neeskens, Ruud Gullit and Marco van Basten, Dennis Bergkamp and Edgar Davids, languish far behind him; only Edwin van der Sar and Frank de Boer, once a teammate and now a member of the coaching staff, are ahead. And none, of course, have had the distinction of raising the gold-plated World Cup trophy. Nor can any rival his record with the armband: 14 competitive games have brought 14 victories.
A player who may not appear a natural leader is proving an effective one. "He is not someone who bosses people around and yells," Bert van Marwijk, the manager, said earlier in the competition. "He is a very quiet guy who has the respect of all the players, and that is very important." Worldwide respect could be the reward tonight. That, and the greatest send-off any retiring player in the game's history has ever received.