Off The Ball

Football's elder statesmen

Cameroon's forward Roger Milla celebrates after scoring a goal against Russia

There are few more respected figures in football than the old stagers who draw on their vast experience and supreme fitness to extend their careers well into their thirties and beyond. pays tribute to some of the game's most esteemed senior citizens.

Popular patriarchs
When Pele exploded on to the international stage he was quickly dubbed the 'Black Pearl'. What a lot of people do not know is that the Brazilian star was not the first player to receive the nickname, that honour going to the Moroccan legend Larbi Ben Barek.

Born in Casablanca in 1917, the free-scoring forward became a revered figure at Atletico Madrid and Marseille, where he retired at the age of 40, having maintained his flawless technique and killer instinct through to the twilight of his career. Such was his status that even the immensely gifted Pele looked up to him. "If I was the king, he was God," declared the Brazil No10 on more than one occasion.

Another name that is similarly revered across the footballing world is Michel Platini. The French playmaker was not the first member of his family to make a name for himself in the game, however. His father Aldo played for his hometown club of Joeuf until well after his 40th birthday, sometimes to the mild embarrassment of his more talented son.

"I remember going with my mother to watch him play one day," recalled Platini Jr. "He was preparing to take a free-kick when some of the crowd started making fun of him. They were shouting things like, 'Is that old man still playing?' I was a bit ashamed but my father took the free-kick and scored, and as he celebrated he turned to the stand and shouted, 'Now you know what the old man can do!'"

When you reach a certain age you know your job and your areas better. It does get harder and harder to get up every time you dive, though.

Another member of the 40-something club is the versatile Spanish-Brazilian defender Donato, who became something of an institution at Deportivo in his footballing dotage. Known affectionately as El Abuelo *(The Grandfather) he made 466 appearances for Atletico Madrid and *Depor, scoring 49 goals in all, including one that made him the oldest ever goalscorer in the history of La Liga. By the time he retired at the age of nearly 41, he had become one of the best-loved players in the Spanish game.

Having achieved similar adulation in the Italian game, Paolo Maldini announced his retirement at the end of last season after extending his career past his 41st birthday. And what of Cameroon's Roger Milla, who became a household name at the age of 38 by scoring four goals at the 1990 FIFA World Cup Italy™? Amazingly, Milla was back on the big stage at USA 1994, making light of his creaking limbs to hit the back of the net against Russia and write his name in the record books as the oldest player ever to score in the competition.

The legendary Stanley Matthews played his last game for England at 42, made an appearance for Stoke City after his 50th birthday and played his last game for Maltese side Hibernians as a 55-year-old, while Billy Meredith ran out for Wales and Manchester until the respective ages of 45 and 49.

Durable custodians
Goalkeepers tend to enjoy longer careers than their outfield colleagues, very often producing their best form after turning 30. Two fine examples are the venerable English duo of Peter Shilton and David Seaman, while Dino Zoff showed his shot-stopping powers were still intact at the age of 41 by helping Italy to win Spain 1982.

Outdoing them all, however, was Carlos Fernando Navarro Montoya. The successor to another highly regarded veteran in Hugo Gatti,* El Mono* (The Monkey) patrolled the Boca Juniors goal throughout the 1990s and finally hung up his gloves in July this year at the ripe old age of 43.

During his lengthy career, Navarro Montoya had the unlikely distinction of conceding goals to Jorge Nicolas Higuain and his son Gonzalo, the former putting one past him in 1990, and the latter, now with Real Madrid, doing likewise in 2006. "When you reach a certain age you know your job and your areas better," he said in reference to his trade. "It does get harder and harder to get up every time you dive, though."

Staying in South America, Juan Carlos Bazalar and his son Carlos Alonso made history with Peruvian side Cienciano when they appeared together in a 3-2 win over Juan Aurich in May 2008. "I'm so proud," said a tearful Bazalar Sr, who captained Peru at the last Copa America. "Everything turned out how I dreamed it would."

And the list of golden oldies goes on. The 43-year-old Teddy Sheringham, the oldest man ever to play in all four top divisions in England, is pondering a return to the game with non-league side Beckenham Town.

My friends then bet me I wouldn't get a single goal but I went out and scored. Nobody expected a 40-year-old to do that well.

The former Manchester United and England star will do well, though, to match the achievement of diminutive Colombian striker Anthony De Avila. Retired for 12 years, the man they call El Pitufo (The Smurf) donned his boots again for America de Cali last weekend despite having turned 45.

After coming on with 15 minutes remaining against Deportivo Pasto, De Avila, the club's record goalscorer with 201 goals and counting, said: "I was nervous rather than scared, just like I was the first time. I don't know how long I'll play for but I want to do my bit to help the club out."

Another old hand still going strong is Trinidad and Tobago's 41-year-old player-coach Russell Latapy, who is aiming to take part at South Africa 2010. Ageless Egyptian forward Hossam Hassan showed Latapy the way back in 2006, by outperforming many of his younger team-mates at the CAF African Cup of Nations.

"I didn't play in the first two games and then missed a great chance in the third," he told "My friends then bet me I wouldn't get a single goal but I went out and scored in the next game. Nobody expected a 40-year-old to do that well, so it was a good bet for me."

Marvelling at Hassan's durability was strike partner Mido. "I was only two when he started playing in 1985 so you can imagine how I feel playing alongside him. It's a wonderful experience."

Yet trumping all of them is Brazilian idol Socrates, who made a brief return at the age of 50 for English non-leaguers Garforth Town in 2004, proof if it were needed that as long as you have what it takes, age really is no impediment.

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