With the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, doubted by many after joining Manchester United at the age of 35, slotting home an impressive 26 goals this season, it is time to ask the age-old question: is age just a number?
This is potentially an interesting trend given the tendency over the last two decades to label players as ‘past-it’ or as ‘having seen better days’ as soon as the clock strikes twelve on their thirtieth birthday. In many ways this has corresponded with obsessive, highly mediatised searches for the next child prodigy. Every spotty teenager who gets given five minutes at the end of a rainy mid-week League Cup game is scrutinized by scouts from all of the Premier League giants.
Is this a futile endeavour? We’ve seen plenty young teens labelled the ‘English-Messi’ (the term itself a horrible contradiction), who prove to be mediocre divas who don’t respect the game but only the sizeable pay-cheque that comes with it. So then, should clubs in-fact be scouring the market for a hidden gem concealed from the limelight by hasty perceptions of age?
You only have to look at the average age of players who feature in the prestigious PFA team of the year to appreciate that youth doesn’t necessarily equate to domestic success. Since the PFA team of the year has been established the most featured age of top-performers lies between 26-31 years old. Similarly, on the international stage, experience has proved key with Italy’s dramatic 2006 World Cup triumph accomplished with an average team age of 29.6 years old. Historically the World Champions have fielded a side with an average age of 27.5.
Zlatan Ibrahimović epitomises this return to an appreciation of ‘older’ players. With many dubious sideward glances amongst United fans on his arrival, the big Swede has been a shining light in an otherwise inconsistent and lacklustre side. With over 25 goals scored already this season, including the dramatic winner in the recent 3-2 victory at Wembley (securing his 32nd career trophy), he has without doubt silenced his critics. In his first half-season with his new club, the 35-year old’s influence has been unquestionable. Without his goals, the Red Devils would have found themselves 13 points and three league places worse off. His typically outrageous declaration ‘I am a God’ almost unbelievably appears justified and is clear evidence that age isn’t necessarily a handicap in the modern game.
Leicester City in the last five years has invested heavily in its training facilities and its high-tech methods of monitoring player fitness. From shots of beetroot juice to a cryotherapy ice chamber that reaches -135C
Sticking with the Premier League, other notable examples include the sensational Jamie Vardy (30) scoring 24 goals in the league last season with his frenetic, high-tempo, high-pressure style that allowed him to score in a record-breaking 11 consecutive games. This form earned him a deserved England call-up at the age of 29 – an unconventional age for a breakthrough on the international stage. It is important to note here, the fact that Leicester City in the last five years has invested heavily in its training facilities and its high-tech methods of monitoring player fitness. From shots of beetroot juice to a cryotherapy ice chamber that reaches -135C, these advanced recovery methods allowed Vardy to clock up speeds of up to 35.44km/h and resurrect the art of counter-attacking football in emphatic style. This scientific approach will be crucial to the future image of the modern footballer: older players will stay fitter for longer, recover from injuries quicker, and continue to train harder.
It’s no surprise then that these ‘experienced’ players are putting off the retirement home that is the American MLS in favour of prolonging their career in the big time. A certain Jermain Defoe, whose goals this season have been crucial to Sunderland’s dogged relegation scrap, soon realised the error of his ways after crossing the Atlantic to join Toronto FC in 2014. Returning to his rightful league just a year later, the 34 year-old has spent the last two campaigns saving Sunderland from the looming prospect of the drop. Much like the case of Ibrahimović, we again see a team of often inexperienced or poorly disciplined youngsters be carried on the so-called poor, aged backs of these modern day professionals.
‘Form may be temporary but class is permanent.’
Another interesting aspect of this somewhat new-found respect for older players is perhaps the evaporating sense of loyalty that exists in the beautiful game. Players who have spent their whole careers at clubs are increasingly rare and are idolised as legends of game who are often respected by fans of even the most bitter rivals. To name a just a few: Roma’s valiant gladiator Francesco Totti (40), Mr. Reliable otherwise known as Philip Lahm (33), and last but not least Spanish maestro Andres Iniesta (32). All viewed as vintage footballers who continue to perform on the elite European stage. I can’t help but be reminded of the age-old footballing parable, ‘Form may be temporary but class is permanent.’
So have we seen the end of cheap jokes and chants involving Zimmer-frames and bus-passes at the expense of players who exceed this 30-year old boundary? Given the tenacity and passion of most football fans, probably not. However, we will start to see more and more golden oldies showing there’s life in the old dog yet.