Off the Ball

Lure of the game entices comeback kings

Dutch goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar walks with his family in a full ArenA during his farewell match

Retirement is never easy for professional footballers. The majority of them dread the moment, and when it finally arrives, they find it difficult to imagine spending the rest of their lives earning their livelihood from a different activity

Consequently, it is no surprise that some ex-players decide to extend or resurrect their football careers. Edwin van der Sar, who is coming back to play for his boyhood club Noordwijk at the age of 45, is one of the most high-profile examples, and turns the spotlight on other former stars who just could not stay away.

It appeared to be definitive: the game had seen the last of La Brujita (the little witch). After an incredible career that started – and ended – at Estudiantes, and that saw him express his talents in Argentina, Italy and England, Juan Sebastian Veron announced that he was hanging up his boots in June 2012, at the age of 38.

Initially inconsolable, supporters of the La Plata-based side regained their smile upon the sight of their idol, who had become the club’s sporting director in the meantime, swapping his shirt and tie for a red and white striped jersey just one year later.

“I love playing football and I try to set myself targets,” explained the Argentinian attacking midfielder prior to the start of the season. “And looking at the team’s situation, and the state of the transfer market at the moment, it was time for me to lend a hand.”

In a laudable gesture, the former Inter Milan player donated all of his wages to the club’s youth academy, perhaps in the hope that his own successor will be unearthed at some point in the future.

It was also due to a feeling of affection for his first club, Hogaborgs, that Henrik Larsson pulled his boots back on at 41 years of age. The ex-Celtic goal machine, who had originally been unable to stick to his promise of representing the Swedish minnows at the end of his career, was finally able to make up for it in June 2013, four years after his last official match.

Then assistant coach, Larsson took to the pitch after the team was hit by an injury crisis. Featuring on the list of players fit and available was a certain Jordan Larsson, 15 years old, and son of Henrik.

Curiously, former England international Chris Sutton, who partnered the Swede up front for Celtic, had also made an unlikely comeback in 2012. Three years after turning his back on the game, the 39-year-old made one appearance for non-league Wroxham, during the same match that his 16-year-old son, Oliver Sutton, was making his debut in goal.

From Romario to Roger Milla
Another family tale emerged in Brazil in 2009, where Romario made a surprise return to football at 43 to defend the colours of Rio de Janeiro-based America, the team supported by his father, Evedair Faria, who had passed away the previous year. “It’s a way of realising my father’s long-held dream,” said the 1994 FIFA World Cup™ winner.

Third at the prestigious tournament four years later in France, Croatian midfielder Robert Prosinecki went down a similar road two years after bringing his career to a close. “I’ve decided to try and help Savski Marof because it is a club that my late father loved,” he explained prior to signing for the fourth division side.

Jocelyn Angloma knows better than anyone how tempting it is to return to one’s roots. After retiring at 37 in 2002, the former Valencia and Marseille right-back received an urgent request from Etoile de Morne-a-l'Eau, the amateur club with whom he started out in Guadeloupe, who were keen to bring him in for an upcoming French Cup match.

Angloma took up the challenge and played the 90 minutes, but instead of stopping right there, he decided to extend the adventure, turning out for the club in the league and going on to represent the Guadeloupe regional team, taking part in the Caribbean Cup and qualifying for the 2007 CONCACAF Gold Cup.

Incredibly, the French veteran then helped Les Gwada Boys to reach an historic semi-final at the continental competition, scoring a goal against Honduras in the quarter-final for good measure. Having attained the grand old age of 41, and with a feeling of having done his duty, he tidied away his football boots for a second and probably last time.

History has shown that it is still possible for footballers to achieve great things well into their 40s. Cameroon legend Roger Milla was one year older than Angloma when he became the oldest-ever goalscorer at the FIFA World Cup versus Russia at USA 1994. The charismatic striker had previously announced his retirement four years before, following a successful three-season spell at Montpellier.

After getting hold of an amateur licence to continue playing for pleasure, he led Saint-Pierroise, a club from the island of Reunion, to a league and cup double. The remainder of his story is now part of football folklore: recalled to the Lions Indomptables for Italy 1990, Milla propelled them to the quarter-finals, and continued to play and score for another six years, before retiring for good at the age of 44.

Milla’s longevity may well have inspired another iconic attacker to lace up his boots after several years of inactivity. In 2003, ahead of an Orange County Blue Stars’ fourth division game, the name of ‘Jay Goppingen’ likely meant nothing to members of the opposing team who happened to glance at the teamsheet, but they were doubtless shocked to see him in the flesh when the game began.

The pseudonym actually concealed a 39-year-old German forward who, five years before, had seen the curtain fall on a highly productive career, the highlight of which was a FIFA World Cup victory in 1990. In fact, the mystery man was none other than Jurgen Klinsmann.

A resident of California, the ex-Tottenham Hotspur and Bayern Munich marksman went on to score five goals in eight matches to help his local side qualify for the play-offs. “I’m just doing it for pleasure and to keep myself fit,” stated the future USA national coach, who had chosen the moniker as a nod to the town of his birth, Goppingen.

Completely different factors motivated another Germany stalwart, Mario Basler, to reverse his decision to retire. A dead-ball specialist with Werder Bremen, Bayern and Kaiserslautern, where he played his final match in 2003, he had embarked on a coaching career when he made the mistake of losing a bet with his friend and golf partner, David Winterstein, chairman of BCA Oberhausen. His forfeit? To pull on the jersey of the Bavarian team, then in Germany’s seventh tier.

The return of Dida and Davids *It was also friendship that spurred Brazilian *Aldair, a Roma legend, to come out of retirement to join Murata in 2007, three years after bidding farewell to the game.

Massimo Agostini, his former team-mate at I Giallorossi, had guided the club to the league title in San Marino, a success that earned them a berth in the preliminary round of the UEFA Champions League. In the meantime, the Seleçao centre-back had kept himself fit by indulging in a spot of beach soccer.

His compatriot Dida, the former AC Milan goalkeeper, had also tried his hand at beach soccer after hanging up his professional gloves in 2010. But two years later, the call of the eleven-a-side game proved too strong, and he put pen to paper with Portuguesa, and then Gremio.

Dutchman Edgar Davids had a similar experience, except he conspired to do it twice. The first time, a short spell with Crystal Palace in England’s second tier came two years after he ended his career while at Ajax. The second occurred a further two years later, when Davids became player-coach of fourth division side Barnet at the age of 39.

Retirees appear to find English football particularly difficult to resist, as even fabled Brazilian playmaker Socrates was persuaded to dig out his shin pads one more time for lowly Garforth Town in 2004. The ex-international was 50 at the time, having completed his last official match ten years previously.

In June 2012, Wembley FC managed to convince numerous former stars, such as Ray Parlour, Martin Keown, Graeme Le Saux, Ugo Ehiogu, Claudio Caniggia and Brian McBride, totake part in the club’s FA Cup campaign. To top it off, they brought in ex-England manager Terry Venables to oversee the team and ex-England custodian David Seaman as goalkeeper coach.

The feelings of all these players, and probably of all those approaching retirement, is perfectly summed up by Ivoirian midfield man Bonaventure Kalou who, after enjoying a career packed full of goals and trophies with Côte d’Ivoire, Feyenoord and Paris Saint-Germain, retired in 2010, only to make an unexpected comeback the following year at Combs-La-Ville, in the 11th division in France.

“I missed football so much over the last few months. I’m happy to be in changing rooms and be with my team-mates again. No matter the level, football is my life,” he said.

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