The longevity of champions

Aeon 26 January 2019. At the end of Sampdoria-Udinese 4-0, Fabio Quagliarella gave an interview to Sky Sport. A few minutes earlier, he matched the record set by Gabriel Batistuta in 1994, eleven consecutive matches in Serie A with at least one goal scored. The striker has swollen and reddened eyes, his voice is cracked by emotion, he speaks and is moved in front of the camera: “In a few days I’ll be 36 years old, I’m very proud to catch such a record at this age. Evidently, the sacrifices I made have served something. The history and the words of Quagliarella intercept a trend of modern football for which an increasing number of players over 30 movement has a central role in the most important clubs in Europe. It is a new type of competitive longevity, which determines new heights of quantity and quality: contemporary athletes have longer careers than their counterparts in the past, and above all, they manage to remain at the highest levels of performance – individual and team – even in old age.

Big stars

Cristiano Ronaldo (34 years old) and Messi (31) have changed their game since their beginnings, and yet they continue to monopolize the scoring and performance rankings of the main competitions, to touch up their personal records, are unanimously considered the best players on the planet. The trend does not end with their legend: Juventus and Barcelona have been building the squad for years around a battery of over 30 players who are essential in terms of maturity and quality – Chiellini (34), Bonucci (31), Piqué (32), Suárez (32) -; Real Madrid entrusts Sergio Ramos (32) and Modric (33) with the keys to the team; Manchester City and PSG are based on the leadership of Fernandinho (33), Thiago Silva (34) and Dani Alves (35); Godín (33), Albiol (33) and Kolarov (33) are the tactical and emotional guides of Atlético Madrid, Naples and Rome. Quagliarella himself is back in the national team, the ct Roberto Mancini called him for an internship in Coverciano three and a half years after his last experience in the Italian team then confirmed him for the first two engagements in the European qualifications.

It’s not only a matter of tangible impact on the game, but also of attractiveness on the market: Cristiano Ronaldo’s arrival at Juventus has monopolized the sports news of the last summer, the Portuguese champion has become the most expensive over 30 in history (120 million paid by the HCL club to Real Madrid), but the negotiations completed and the rumours about possible transfers have involved and will involve many other players in old age – think of the rumours about Modric and Godín at Inter, or the passage of 31-year-old Vidal to Barcelona.

The champions of the previous eras

On the other hand, have abandoned football and/or the most demanding stages at a decidedly lower age: Platini retired at the age of 32, Maradona and Cruijff left Naples and Barcelona at the age of 31, Beckenbauer and Pelé moved to the United States at the age of 31 and 33, respectively. In an article published during the last World Cup, the Economist collected some data that confirm that great football is increasingly oriented to research and reward maturity: the players selected for the World Cup tournament in Russia have scored the highest average age since the 1966 edition (27 years and 11 months); in the last five editions of the Ballon d’Or, only 17 Under 24 players have entered the top 20; in 2018, a candidate for the final victory of the recognition of France Football has an average age of 27 years and 4 months, compared to 26 years and 3 months in 2008.

Fabio Quagliarella spoke of sacrifices, he identified seriousness and constancy as indispensable prerogatives on which to build a long-lasting career at a high level. Alberto Bartali, an athletic trainer of Galatasaray, former of Zenit St. Petersburg, Sampdoria and Catania, integrates the importance of fieldwork to the care of other aspects: “Today the great players tend to build rigorous professionalism, composite, which goes beyond talent or the improvement of technical and athletic qualities. They lead a healthy life, study the possibilities and limits of the human body, for example, they have breakfast at the headquarters before starting training, they weigh bread and honey, they know the differences between the various types of food they can take. They try to acquire skills and find the best ways to extend their careers, and in this way, they also become an example for younger companions. Also, they develop an absolute perception of their body, until they possess the tools to suggest the calibration of loads of training, literally guide the health and technical staff in the path of recovery after a match or a micro-accident.

Obviously, it is also a question of managerial, technological and game evolution: “In the contemporary era – explains Bartali -, a high-level club has a staff of professionals who constantly follow the psychophysical evolution of the player. I started thirty years ago and I was the only athletic trainer, today my working group consists of seven-eight specialized figures, and then there are nutritionists, doctors, physiotherapists, all departments work in symbiosis to prevent injuries and allow players to express themselves at their best. The training sessions are customized and monitored, we use advanced media, such as GPS detectors that measure the miles covered in jogging and/or fast shots, or tools for immediate analysis that allow us to determine the degree of hydration at the end of a game, so as to set a recovery path that does not compromise the health of the players. And then football has changed compared to a few years ago, the primary objective is no longer to exasperate the physical performance of the players, but rather to enhance the technical quality, to improve reading skills and reaction compared to what happens on the field.

The latest concept expressed by Alberto Bartali

Highlights the most relevant theme in the story of the Over 30 who dominate international football: “Let’s live a paradox: the champions born in the eighties have extended the competitive longevity despite an increasingly congested calendar. I think it’s a question of absolute value, the top contemporary players touch and maintain certain standards of performance because they know how to manage themselves, but also because they are really strong. Cristiano Ronaldo, Quagliarella and Modrić, among others, continue to shine because they have enormous physical, technical and emotional abilities. This makes the difference, especially in an era that guarantees the best conditions for professional athletes.

It’s a conjuncture of times and forces: a group of champions has found and exploited and preserved an ideal context to establish a regime of enlightened absolutism in the places of power on the playing field, has imposed and continues to impose the highest standards of quality and performance for potential heirs, for all those who aspire to occupy key roles in the most important clubs. Today’s young prospects have very early, if not immediate, access to the big stages – on 22nd day of Serie A 2018/2019 there are 22 Under-21 players with more than 1000 minutes on the pitch, slightly more than the average of the top five leagues in Europe (18), while they were just 9 in the entire Serie A 2015/2016 – yet there is a ruthless selection for access to the next level. The obstacle is the competition from established but still hungry champions, in perfect physical efficiency and also able to add a quality that can only be cultivated with time: experience.

Steven Gerrard

In January 2013 gave an interview to the Independent, these were the key phrases of his speech: “Modern football seems to be not very tolerant with players over thirty years old, but look at my career, also look at that of Frank Lampard, Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, John Terry. Alongside the young people will always need elements so strong, so mature, serious professionals, who have great experience and full awareness of their means. Talent alone, at certain levels, is not enough”.

It is a meaningful description of the history of football, after all, we are talking about a sport very similar to life, inevitably cyclical. Only now the limits imposed by time seem to have been erased, they are certainly less impacting, and then the players of today mature and yet continue to excel in quality and physical strength, do not want to know to abdicate, indeed constantly renew individual and absolute records, explore new heights of performance. So much so that tomorrow’s champions are fighting and will have to fight the myth of those who preceded them directly on the field, eyes in the eye, in a complicated generational challenge. A new, suggestive perspective, a clash of worlds for which age is no longer an obstacle, but rather has become a virtue.

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