More than ever, football is a young man’s game. Today’s footballer plays more competitive matches than his forebears; league seasons have stayed the same length, but tournaments have bloated in size. Consider that it took Liverpool only nine games to win the European Cup in 1984, but it took Chelsea 13 matches to eventually be crowned last month. Moreover more clubs, and thus more players, take part in tournaments. Meanwhile, the World Cup has expanded to 32 teams, while the European Championship will add eight teams in 2016.
The biggest difference between today’s game and yesteryear’s, at least according to legends like the dearly departed doctor Socrates, is the much higher pace and resulting lack of space. Gone are the days when players would cage sideline smokes and pound pints moments after the final whistle. To read of the days of wine and roses gone by is to wonder why football matches didn’t break for cocktail hour the way cricketers pause for tea.
All of which is to say that it is remarkable and inspiring for older supporters like myself to see some ‘old-timers’ shine at Euro 2012. The young stars will always get their shine, so instead here are are three legends still writing their story;
Andrea Pirlo: From behind, with those long, wavy locks, he looks like a budding Romeo. Then he turns around and you see the hardened face of a man who has survived and thrived for over 17 seasons in Italian football. Absolutely crucial to Italy’s 2006 World Cup triumph, injury robbed him from saving Italy from a group stage exit in 2010. In last Thursday’s opening draw against Spain, his play-making, control, and expert pass to create Antonio Di Natale’s goal were essential.
Andriy Shevchenko: Despite being 35, he still has the same baby-face he had when he struck the winning penalty shot for AC Milan against Juventus to win the Champions League nearly a decade ago. But that wide-eyed look belies the assassin within, as he turned back the years to unleash two headers on Sweden and send the home fans into reverential rapture.
Ashley Cole: True, he’s “only” 31 and plays in defence where players tend to last longer, but this is now his twelfth year representing England. He’s the only player left pulling on the three lions shirt from England’s squad that exited the 2002 World Cup with a 2-1 loss to Brazil. As he proved in Chelsea’s defence-dominated run to the Champions League championship, he’s as good as he ever was. Roy Hodgson has England playing defence-first because that is where England’s greatest strength is. In the France match he was unable to burst forward as he often does, but he provided several crucial clearances in withstanding the French siege. He will remain crucial as Hodgson will likely continue with the same tactics.