The demands of modern football lay stress and strain on the bodies of players, much more than in the past.
It has certainly cut short the careers of some top names that may have been able to play longer, had their bodies not taken such a beating.
The legendary Englishman Sir Stanley Matthews, ‘Shuffling Stan’—the wizard of the dribble for Blackpool and Stoke City, played past 50, before he retired in 1965. That would be impossible today.
Certainly, the game has changed since I started playing in the 1980s.
The science that goes into preparing teams is incredible: there are the biokineticists, nutritionists and even psychologists.
Everything is geared towards creating individuals at the very peak of their abilities , both mentally and physically. This has not only made the game more tactical, but quicker and harder on the body, too.
A 2011 study showed that players, on average, ran 10-11 kilometers in a match, compared to just four kilometers in the 1970s.
In a way it is a vicious circle; science makes the game faster, then we need better science to make players faster.
So does this mean that we are seeing players retire earlier than before because they are unable to keep up?
That is a very broad question, but generally this is the case. You get some players who keep going and defy their age—39-year-old Ryan Giggs of Manchester United, who has been playing in the first team since he was 17, is one of the few.
Camerian great, Roger Milla, played in the 1994 FIFA World Cup in the States at 42 and club football for five years after. He was a great striker, but also a freak of nature in many ways. Milla had incredible natural fitness that few players possess. It is not something acquired or learnt, he was born that way. It was his good fortune.
That is the same in most sports though, look at Martina Navratilova who played tennis until she was almost 50. These people are the exception, not the rule, but they were certainly more common in days gone by.
In football, it is also dependent on where you play and in what position.
Take Paolo Maldini, he was 40 when he retired in 2009 and Alessandro Costacurta, who was 41 when he stopped playing in 2007 for A.C. Milan in Italy’s Serie A.
They both played league football at the highest level, well into their fifth decade, but were allowed to do so, in part, by dint of their defensive positions and the slower pace of the game in Italy.
Would they have been able to play for so long in the hurly-burly of the English Premier League, where the game is less technical but faster? I seriously doubt it.
They were, of course, also tremendous athletes and model professionals, who extended their careers by looking after themselves.
That is where the science comes in. If you look at the oldest players ever to have played in Italy’s Serie A, seven of them have played since 2000 and six of those in the last five seasons.
I was fortunate enough to prolong my career past 40 and did so because of my love of the game. My passion was playing; it didn’t matter to me whether it was for my club or for my country. I am very proud of the fact that I scored my last international goal at the age of 41 in a World Cup qualifier against Liberia in Lusaka in 2004. I was coach then and we were 0-0 in the 68th minute, when I substituted midfielder, Dudley Fichite, for myself. As the coach I was registered to play.
I was highly frustrated that we were not winning and went onto the pitch, on that September afternoon, without even warming up. Armed with a will and determination, with three minutes of injury time to go, I scored a free kick from close to the center circle that seemed to zigzag past the defenders into the net. It sent the 30,000-strong crowd at Independence Stadium into a frenzy and proved a dignified full stop to my international career.
It was difficult to give up and I always said that when I was no longer an asset to my team on the field, I would call it quits. It was a sad day when I did. I have managed to create a different life for myself now, where I am still involved in football and helping it develop. For that, I am thankful.
It was a lot of hard work though; it took dedication and sacrifice and not everybody has that in them. That is the mental side of it.
There have been plenty of studies into the optimal age of an athlete in modern football and they all seem to come back with similar findings, no matter what sport you look at.
On average, players aged between 26 and 29 are said to be at the peak of their abilities, with rare exceptions.
This is because they have the right mix of physical attributes and experience to be of most value to their teams. That is a scary thought when you think Barcelona and Argentina star Lionel Messi is only 25.
This peak lasts, in most cases, until the age of 31, when it becomes harder for them to maintain standards week in, week out.
Statistics from 2011 show that 70% of regular players in the world’s leading clubs are between the age of 23 and 31 for attackers, and 25 and 31 for defenders.
It is after the age of 31 that the numbers tend to drop and that sends the analysts into a tailspin. At Arsenal, manager Arsene Wenger is notorious for only handing out one-year contracts only to players over the age of 30.
One of the leading technical directors in European football recently said that before he renews a veteran player’s contract, he’ll study his statistics. For example: is the player playing fewer games; is he sprinting less often; making fewer tackles than last season?
Prior to all this analysis, all was judged by the gut-feeling of the coach and that probably prolonged a lot of careers. In these days of multi million euro contracts and huge wage bills, there is nothing more dangerous for a club than to have older players on long-term contracts because they cannot be sold easily.
In the past this would have been less of a consideration, you would keep older heads around to teach the youngsters a thing or two. That experience is in many ways now lost and has been replaced by an army of coaches and analysts. That is a symptom of this often strange age of professionalism we live in, where loyalty and experience often goes unrewarded in the search for success.