It’s an unspoken agreement within the realm of association football that an outfield player reaches their peak somewhere in the vicinity of their late twenties. Historically, the perfect age to win the World Cup, for example, is 27.5, the average age of winning teams from 1930 to 2010. Any player well into their thirties, who isn’t a goalkeeper, is typically referred to as someone who is in their ‘twilight years’, past their best. But in 2021, the conversation around a player’s expiry date is one worth revisiting.
Zlatan Ibrahimović celebrated his 40th birthday this month – but he is still playing and scoring consistently for AC Milan. In the Premier League, arguably the most combative and physically demanding league in the world, Cristiano Ronaldo (36), Thiago Silva (37) and Fernandinho (36) all play fundamental roles in the success of their clubs. Elsewhere, names like Euro 2020 champion Giorgio Chiellini (37), Ballon D’or winner Luka Modrić (36) and, of course, Lionel Messi (34), remain at the highest level of the sport.
It's easy to contrast these names to legends of the bygone era. Pelé is a strong example, seeing his prime in his late teens and early twenties. During the first half of his senior career with Santos, in which Pelé was aged 16-25, he scored a staggering approximate of 462 goals for his club. In the second half of his time at Vila Belmiro, aged 25-34, within the same number of years, he netted around 181 goals. Still impressive, but fairly emphatic proof that his ability, at least as a goalscorer, diminished after the age of twenty-five.
Obviously, Pelé is only a single example within countless professional footballers across the years. But when discussing the all-time greats, very few of them played at the highest level into the latter half of their thirties. Diego Maradona only scored 12 goals after his thirty-second birthday, and George Best retired aged 27. Of course, these examples will provoke arguments of ‘outside influences’, but those too play into the conversation.
So, why and how has this shift in ‘prime’ occurred? There isn’t a magic fountain of youth that has allowed Ronaldo to maintain the fitness of a 26-year old for an additional decade, or some kind of miracle drug that has allowed Ibrahimović to compete at the top into his forties. The answer, mostly, lies in player attitude, modern technology, and tactics.
First and foremost, lifestyle must be addressed. George Best and Diego Maradona battled with addiction throughout their careers, something that was sadly all-too common in football’s yesteryear. Those who did not have overt addictions still may have drunk or smoked regularly, habits that are inarguably detrimental to physical health. Saying this - no one can deny that Jamie Vardy's famous three cans of Red Bull and cheese and ham omelette, before the 3pm kick off, hampers his performance.
Ronaldo, who famously rubbished Coca-Cola in favour of “agua”, is a stark contrast to this and best represents modern sport’s intensive, unparalleled level of self-discipline and dedication. Top-level athletes nowadays schedule their sleep, their diets and their daily routines all around fitness and health. Those who might struggle with addiction have access to professionals who can help them overcome it.
But Ronaldo currently thrives aged 36 not only because he has demanded this level of excellence from himself, but because he has access to sports science of the most impressive degree. It is understood that he has his very own Cryotherapy chamber in his home, the sort of thing that would likely have been a thing of science-fiction in Pelé's heyday. Due to the exorbitant amount of money at play in top divisions, paired with advances in medicine, footballers in the modern era are allowed to play better - for longer. Surgeries have improved, physiotherapy has advanced, and some injuries that might have once been career-ending have become rectifiable.
On a lesser note, the global shift of tactics over the last few decades has allowed for more creativity in how teams are set up. Gone are the days of pass-backs to goalkeepers and 4-4-2 exclusivity (or 4-2-4 in Pelé’s case). Research and scouting have also benefitted from the influx of money in football, and with it an added importance of vision and tactical awareness that perhaps supersedes speed and stamina. Silva’s command over a defence is almost unrivalled in the Premier League, while Ronaldo’s talent for positional cognizance and goal-poaching is perhaps the greatest ever, even to this day.
With these factors in mind, you must question what the limits are on a player’s career. Ronaldo has played at the top for two full decades now; could we ever see a player challenge at that level for three? What is the limit of science and technology in lengthening a career? There are many questions to be asked, but we are witnessing now is a reinterpretation of what the ‘twilight years’ mean for a footballer.