Eighteen years old: Your legs are fresh and new. Your limbs beg to hit the ground and sprint. You are capable of running for ninety minutes straight with unending buzz and unstoppable stamina.
Twenty-six years old: You have been running for a number of years but now you feel a slight sense of pull-back. You can still run, run for an hour without noticing, but you lack the natural, almost unnoticed bite you once had. You are hitting your prime years now, but you are conscious that it won’t last forever.
Thirty-four years old: It’s a slaving task now. Your muscles have tightened and your sprints don’t have the same reach that was there four or five years ago. You can’t track back as often, or as effectively. You prefer to stay in the one spot, convincing yourself that you are of more use in a single fixed position. Where once upon a time you seeked out the ball, the ball would now have to be brought to you.
It is the single outstanding difference in football that no coach or manager, gameplan or tactic can prevent: speed. If a player is faster than you there is very little you can do to stop him. You can foul him, but two yellow cards equals a sending off. You can double-mark him, but that’s wasting a whole player on stopping only one of the opposition’s and this will leave gaps.
Take Arjen Robben for example. Arjen Robben has been doing the exact same trick, the exact same shimmy, cut-inside from the right manoeuvre for the past ten years. He knows that he is going to do it, his marker knows he is going to do it, even the opposition manager knows that he is going to do it. So why has no one found a solution? Answer: there isn’t one.
In the animal kingdom, speed sets apart predator from prey, eating from being eaten. And there is no exception in football. If a player is faster than you and manages to get himself and the ball around your body, there is simply no catching them. Raheem Sterling has shown us this time after time.
Per Mertesacker, Rio Ferdinand and Richard Dunne have more times than can be counted been the victims of this unfortunate reality. With their height and bulk physique that is of aid to a robust centre back, these features betray them when a young sprightly Eden Hazard or Angel di Maria comes running at them with unending pace.
But the contradiction, the anti-thesis of this whole entire argument, lies in the form of a handful of professional footballers who have been able to make it to the pinical of world football and been regarded as some of the finest players to have played the game, in their old age, when pace is fleeting and speed is a distant memory of their youth.
Indeed in their younger years they may have once had speed as their alley, but it is the remarkable sight that with age, when their legs are supposed to have worn thin from years of playing, that they mastered the trade and reached their peak years in their early to mid thirties.
Such players do not rely on speed or pace, but have managed to rekindle their careers through intelligent understanding and technical ability. These are the ageing masters of football.
Francesco Totti, 38
Totti has redefined himself in recent years. With 237 Serie A goals under his belt, the Francesco the world knew as a stealthy finisher was thought to have been decaying under boss Luis Enrique three years ago. However under the management of Rudi Garcia, Totti has been the focal point in the resurgence of AS Roma. Playing the nowadays rarely witnessed role as a classi trequartista, Totti is the undeniable fulcrum of all Roma attacks. With restricted mobility to roam about the pitch as he used to, Totti drifts deep or pulls wide to attract the ball and provide one of his mezmorising passes, ultimately creating something out of pure nothing. Now 38, the captain of the Eternal City has not looked out of depth or lacking behind in his age. Rather he has made fellow, younger players in Serie A look bad by being outdone time after time, year after year by this stalwart of Calcio.
Andrea Pirlo, 35
Like many of the players already mentioned, Pirlo has managed to reignite the flickering flame of a spiralling career seeming to peter out like any other. Having won two Scudettos and two UEFA Champions Leagues at Milan, Pirlo was let go on a free transfer to Juventus, having only made 17 appearances in his final season at San Siro. However under the guidance of Antonio Conte, Pirlo was re-moulded into one of the most creative and inventive playmakers in recent footballing history. Already a beautiful passer of the ball before arriving at Juventus, what seemed to have lay dormant inside Andrea Pirlo was suddenly awoken in dramatic and sintilating fashion. Since joining Juve in the summer of 2011, Pirlo has won three consecutive Serie A titles as well as getting to the final of EURO 2012 with Italy where he proved exceptional in his role of deep-lying midfielder. Unmarkable at times, Pirlo drifts around the pitch at his own pace, taking and giving the ball, playing defence-cutting through balls and generally reading the game quicker than his opponents.
John Terry, 34
By the end of the 2012/13 season John Terry had made only 27 appearances for Chelsea Football Club in all competitions. The following season, under former boss José Mourinho, Terry made 47 appearances for Chelsea. Throughout the 2013/14 season Chelsea’s defence of Gary Cahill, César Azpilicueta, Branislav Ivanović and John Terry conceded only 27 goals in 38 league games. Terry found a new lease of life under Mourinho, enjoying his greatest individual season since Chelsea last won the Premier League title in 2010. Having looked to be slowly retreating behind the curtain at Chelsea under Rafael Benitez after being found guilty for racially abusing Anton Ferdinand as well as being dropped as England captain, Terry was arguably the Premier League’s best defender along with centre-back partner Gary Cahill last season. He has shown that a slowing down of a defender’s sprinting capabilities need not be the undoing of one of the Premier League’s greatest ever footballers.
Antonio Di Natale, 37
Di Natale’s is the most bizarre of cases to be made for ageing players. Having not hit any great heights in his adolescent years as a professional footballer, Di Natale burst onto the scene when he joined, and was made captain of Udinese. In the past six seasons Di Natale has scored 127 goals – averaging 21 per season. This is a remarkable statistic for a striker now 37 years old. Often gone under the radar outside of Italy due to the inability of clubs to sign him both because of his age and his unwillingness to leave, Di Natale is the fifth highest goalscorer in the history of Serie A. Rumours of the player only training a couple of times a week due to his age and physical condition only adds fuel to the fascinating nature of his goal-scoring ability. Twice threatening to retire, most recently at the end of last season, the Italian has come back season after season after the age of 30 to score unappreciated volumes of goals for his Udinese.
Other past examples would naturally include Ryan Giggs, Paulo Maldini as well as Javier Zanetti. The nature of such players, who are adorned by watchers of the game, create a kind of cult following surrounding them. Footballers are supposedly meant to hit their average peak at 27 years old. But these men have redefined standards and existed outside of the norm in tremendous demeanor.
Although older, slower and less agile than fellow players, their years of experience, knack and cunning prowess have earned them not only respect on the pitch that transcends its own aura surrounding the players, but also has developed their footballing intelligence to a point where they simply do not need to run for ninety minutes straight. Appearing graceful, unfazed and always in control of a situation, these ageing maestro of the game have reinvented the set standard and accepted practise surrounding older players in which the glowing complexity of their individual dynamism will outlive the decaying nature of their exterior being.