From the publishers of THE HINDU
VOL.32 :: NO.27 :: Jul. 04, 2009
Michael Owen and Stevan Gerrard, once team-mates at Liverpool are both 29 years old, but there alas the resemblance stops. For Gerrard has just said that when his present contract ends at 33, he may simply retire, adding that he wouldn’t dream of playing for any other club than his local Liverpool. (Eh? Wasn’t it only a couple of years ago that all seemed set for him to go to Chelsea, only for a last minute change of mind, allegedly brought about by threats of Liverpudlian hard men?) As for Owen, an 18-year-old star of the 1998 World Cup, a scorer of abundant goals for club and country, his career teeters on the very edge of termination.
This, because of an endless succession of injuries. Newcastle United, his latest club, who have been paying him £120,000 a week for his increasingly rare appearances, have let him go on a free transfer. The distressing upshot of which is that, probably ill-advised, he has decided to release a kind of extended begging letter: in the form of a pamphlet extolling his own virtues. In it we are reminded, as if there were any need, that he is “good looking, sincere and charismatic.” Also that he is “fit and healthy,” which alas is highly debatable. The fact is that infinite injuries have taken the edge off his pace and have blunted his opportunism.
Modest Hull City, lucky to cling on by the skin of their teeth to membership of the Premier League, came out of the woodwork to suggest making him an offer, which would comprise, it is said, a basic fee, then payment for match appearances. In truth, no sensible club would surely risk paying Owen other than on a match to match basis, so little guarantee is there of his playing regularly.
Why, you wonder, doesn’t he simply retire, even though 29 is hardly an advanced football age? His achievements are beyond dispute for both club and country. He is a very rich young man, with a string of race-horses. He scarcely needs to humiliate himself by struggling to go on.
Meanwhile, how old is too old? Among goalkeepers, of course, longevity is almost the watchword. Thus David “Calamity” James, for all his various eccentricities, is, at 39, still first choice goalkeeper for England. Edwin van der Sar will not keep goal for Holland any more but at 38 he had a fine season for Manchester United, keeping out one of the sadly few accomplished young English ’keepers, in the 25-year-old Ben Foster. Of outfield United players Paul Scholes still functioned well in midfield at 34, and Ryan Giggs, loaded with honours, flourished both there and on his favourite left-wing at the same age, scoring some spectacular goals.
Earlier this year, I had the privilege, at Cardiff, of seeing a superb performance by the 38-year-old Finnish international, Jari Litmanen. Playing “in the hole,” just behind his striker, he played havoc with a bewildered Welsh defence, immaculate both on the ball and with his devastating passing, which set up a couple of goals in his team’s success. Since returning to his native Finland, after endless European travels, notably a fine spell in Holland with Ajax, he has discovered a vibrant new lease of life.
Paolo Maldini of Italy and Milan has only just retired after an astonishing career, aged almost 40, having made his Milan debut as a 16-year-old, and played for Italy both at left-back and centre-back in a string of World Cups. His father, Cesare, of course, was a Milan and Italy centre-half, who later managed the national team.
Paolo was an outfield player, which makes his record the more remarkable. Dino Zoff, by contrast, was a goalkeeper, who, at 40, captained and inspired the Italy team which won the 1982 World Cup, in Spain. Four years earlier, in Argentina, there had been some doubt about his reactions to long range shots, when Italy came in fourth, but his sheer reassuring presence was of huge help in Spain to the likes of the teenaged Giuseppe Bergomi, brought into the defence in emergency.
But when one talks of longevity, the name of Stanley Matthews, prince of dribblers, supreme among classical outside-rights, must be evoked. Matthews first played for England in 1934 as a 19-year-old when a misguided journalist, after the so-called Battle of Highbury against the violent Italians, opined that he did not have The Big Match Temperament! But at Wembley, in May 1956, one saw Matthews run rings around Nilton Santos, then supposedly the best left-back in the world.
Afterwards, in the dressing room, Matthews said to me that he was tempted when reading that he was “too old” — at 41! — to tear the paper across. In 1961, at 46, he returned from Blackpool to his original club, Stoke City, and helped them back into the top division. “You’ve got to have butterflies before a match,” he told me, even then.
Football today, at the highest levels, has never been so fast and hard. Yet, veterans are still more than holding their own. Fabio Cannavaro, who captained Italy’s 2006 World Cup winning team at centre-back, had an outstanding tournament. At 35, he is still playing for the azzurri, even if he and they struggled in the recent Confederations Cup, in South Africa, and Juventus have sufficient confidence to bring him back to Italy from Real Madrid.
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