Across Europe’s greatest leagues this weekend, there were 15 players aged 31 and over who scored a goal in Italy, Germany, France and England league action. That’s 45 matches in which players of a certain age — headed by the amazing Fabio Quagliarella, who’ll be 38 in January — pushed back the barriers of time, defying the assumption that age wearies and rusts.
The stat is remarkably different in Spain. In La Liga, there were 12 footballers in the same age range who hit the net in just 10 games — 120% compared to exactly a third (33%, or 15 out of 45) everywhere else. It’s a remarkable disparity, and I guess there’s lots to celebrate and glorify.
It means that in total, 27 guys, many of whom in the not-too-distant past would have been pensioned off, riddled with debilitating injuries, deemed too slow, too fat or simply mistrusted, enjoyed the absolute “jouissance” of football’s most glorious moment: hitting the back of net.
The highlights outside Spain would certainly include Jamie Vardy, who’ll be 34 in January, hitting a devastating hat trick in Leicester’s 5-2 win at Manchester City, and another guy who was (once) a pain in the butt for Pep Guardiola — 35-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo — hitting two in the Italian capital to rescue a point for Juventus at Roma.
La Liga is different, though. Always. In everything.
Spain’s two biggest daily football newspapers splashed their front pages, on Sunday and Monday, with pictures of virulent veterans winning the points for their teams. On Sunday, Marca and Diario AS, read by many millions of Spaniards every day, each led on Sergio Ramos, 34, scoring the winner for reigning champions Madrid at Betis during an utterly rumbustious 3-2 win. You may wish to note that although he is a central defender, that’s Ramos’ ninth goal in his past 17 club matches (11th in his past 19, if you count club and country), and he is now one of only two current La Liga players to score in 17 consecutive seasons.
By Monday, the lead story — at any rate, the splash picture on the front of both those papers — was Luis Suarez, who will turn 34 in January, scoring twice and making another during a scintillating 20-minute debut/cameo for his new club, Atletico Madrid.
Oldies, but goodies.
It stands out that while La Liga’s oldest scorer, Jorge Molina, 38, got what Spain calls a “testimonial” goal in that 6-1 thrashing by Atleti, many of the veteran victors tucked away goals that proved crucial to their teams’ fortunes.
Ivan Rakitic, 32 and in only his second appearance since returning to Sevilla after six seasons at Barcelona, sprinted 40 yards in the 95th minute, and in the blistering heat of Cadiz, to take the game away from the home side despite the score being 1-1 when the 90th minute ticked around. Oh, and this after the rigours of him playing almost an hour against Bayern in the UEFA Supercup in Hungary on Thursday night.
Jose Luis Morales, 33, having already “assisted” on Levante‘s go-ahead goal, prevented the Valencians from having to sweat out the last 13 minutes with a mere goal advantage at Osasuna by scoring a cracking wee goal to make it 3-1. To say nothing of Iago Aspas, 33, sprinting half the pitch and producing a finish any striker, in his 25-year-old prime, would have been busting with pride over, to ensure Celta took a point from Valladolid.
And even though Villarreal were pretty much cannon fodder at Camp Nou, it was Leo Messi, 33, whose penalty tucked Unai Emery’s side away for the night at 3-0 after only 35 minutes.
None of this is to ignore the facts that 40-year-old Nino came on and did a very creditable job for Elche against Real Sociedad for just over an hour, nor that the granddaddy of the Primera Liga, Mr. Joaquin Sanchez Rodriguez — born a year before Spain’s World Cup hosting duties in 1982 — played beautifully against Real Madrid, having also racked up 10 goals in 39 appearances last season!
Often, cocktails are the thing that help you celebrate. This time, it’s thanks to a cocktail of reasons that we’re able to venerate these valuable veterans.
There’s no question, at all, that vastly improved dietary advice, daily recuperation techniques, scientific advances in how to rehabilitate, knowledge of which fitness factors must never be ignored, quality of medical surgery, stretching exercises and warm-downs — all of these things, and dozens of other factors — have ensured we no longer lose delightful talents just as they hit 30. Instead, their playing days are extended, and the boost means that not only can they simply ooze experience and maturity for longer, but they are able to keep their physical frames in shape.
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Two further things cannot be ignored. FIFA and IFAB have, gradually but drastically, engineered climate change as far as the protection of skilled players is concerned. Some, I know, argue that almost all payers are now “overprotected,” but the hard fact is that the kind of agricultural challenges some of us lament losing also caused agony and early retirement for many gifted soccer players over the decades and that, now, it’s far less likely to occur.
Moreover, the kudos almost always need to be directed to the “golden oldies” who thrilled us this weekend in La Liga (and across Europe too). To be this sharp and lithe, to prevent reaction times from dulling, to stay lean, to go through the outright hell of preseason drills — all of that requires a tungsten-tough state of mind to go alongside the physical resilience and toughness Molina, Messi, Aspas, Suarez, Dimitris Siovas, Rakitic, Ramos, Costa & Co. showed on Saturday and Sunday.
Almost all players of any significant level have now adopted the idea that they need to be permanently fit. It really wasn’t too long ago that footballers looked on summertime as a “reward” and in fairness, that’s precisely what Eden Hazard did in summer 2019. Those weeks were, then, a time to overindulge in food and drink, to put on weight, to ignore running, stretching … to live precisely the life they’d been denying themselves since the age of 16 or 17 in order to make it to the top.
Around Europe, certainly long after I began my career, hundreds of players seemed to fully embrace the fact that they’d carry several kilos too many on their bodies when the brutality of preseason training came around in late July. Not now, and not anymore.
This truly is the age of the perma-fit player, and part of the benefit is that footballers who are lasting longer and are more durable can expect to be elite even if they lose a little pace.
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What’s a little troubling, I think, is how much La Liga is increasingly reliant on these valuable vets. Spain is still a footballing nation where the “canteras” (“youth systems”) are regarded as utterly vital, where youth coaching is a significant badge of honour rather than something the least useful person around a club does. It remains a nation with an overdeveloped record of winning youth tournaments.
But equally, it’s crucial to accept that more and more relatively green, relatively young gems are being levered out of La Liga by clubs and leagues who either don’t care too much about investing in youth development or, simply, have more cash than, say, a Villarreal (Samu Castillejo), Valencia (Ferran Torres), Betis (Fabian Ruiz) or Real Sociedad (Diego Llorente). I could even mention the scores of youth talents scooped up by the Bundesliga, Premier League and Italy before they’ve even hit the first team at Barcelona or Madrid. Of the 14 players who took to the pitch throughout Spain’s U-21 European Championship win over Germany last summer, seven either have played abroad, still do or are about to.
That list of names I’ve used comprises nothing but obvious examples; there are many more, and it’s a growing trend.
Doesn’t it seem obvious how something that had already grown from a trickle to a flow might increase exponentially as Spanish football suffers with the financial impact of the coronavirus crisis? I think so. Therefore, an extra heartfelt “thank you!” to the coaches who, this past weekend, fielded Bryan Gil (19, Sevilla) Joao Felix (20, Atleti), Kang-in Lee (20) and Yusuf Musah (17, both Valencia), Ander Barrenetxea (18) and Roberto Lopez (20, both Real Sociedad) and Emerson (21, Betis).
Not forgetting, of course the granddaddy of them all — wait, that’s not right, the grandson of them all? — Mr. Ansu Fati, born in late October 2002, not yet 18 and already performing with the assurance, power, decision-making acuity and confidence of a highly talented player many years his senior.
Fati is an outright phenomenon in the making, and even if you ignore the thunderous goals against Villarreal, just look at how easy he’s making it look to play alongside Messi. Outrageous.
All hail the golden oldies, yes, but please let the flow of goal-scoring, goal-preventing golden youth be never-ending … at least here in Spain.