The latest instalment of the soap opera we call football 2022 had once again a seven days to rival that of Craig David with a Champions League love affair on Tuesday and Wednesday, before a chilled Cristiano Ronaldo hat-trick on Saturday. Off the pitch, Chelsea were reduced from roubles to rubble (for now at least) as a result of the sanctions imposed on their soon-to-be ex-owner Roman Abramovich.
On it, matters were dominated by a series of hat-tricks. Tuesday: 33-year old Robert Lewandowski in Bayern Munich’s 7-1 demolition of RB Salzburg. Wednesday: 34-year old Karim Benzema as Real Madrid’s captain became the latest instigator of the near annual Paris Saint-Germain implosion. Saturday: 37-year old Cristiano Ronaldo, not one to be upstaged, in Manchester United’s 3-2 win over Spurs. Perhaps the Old Trafford presence of fellow golden oldie and so-called “GOAT” Tom Brady acted as inspiration. Brady has now decided to reverse his retirement, coincidence?
The first is now the top scorer in this season’s Champions League, the second the oldest scorer of a hat-trick in the competition, and the third FIFA recognised as the greatest goal scorer of all time. All three are also at an age where in previous generations they’d be either retired or winding down (give or take a Paolo Maldini), not setting new records. When it comes to the modern game, 30 really is the new 20.
Cristiano Ronaldo, Benzema, Lewandowski and Co. Showing That 30 Is the New 20
The Over 30’s Club Members
Take a look at some of the other members of the over 30’s club; Luka Modrić ran the game, as well as half the pitch for Benzema’s second goal, on Wednesday night. He’s also close to a new deal that’ll extend his stay in Madrid past his 37th birthday. And he won the Ballon D’Or at 33. Giorgio Chiellini was a man possessed at the Euros 2020 as he captained Italy to success, and he’ll also be at the World Cup if the Azzuri make it, at a cool 38. As will Thiago Silva, the current Brazil captain, playing like a man 10 years younger at Chelsea. In all likelihood Dani Alves, a year his senior, will be there too.
Lionel Messi may be turning 35 in June and having a down year in Paris, possibly more for emotional than physical reasons given the nature of his departure from Barcelona. But he’s still the reigning Ballon D’Or winner and like Ronaldo, surely we’re past the stage of writing him off.
Zlatan Ibrahimović is still knocking about at AC Milan and might yet win another league title this season. While Serie A is a retirement home of sorts with other old heads like Franck Ribéry, Edin Džeko and Arturo Vidal still producing the goods, it’s still wildly impressive for any player to be playing past his 40th birthday, let alone one who suffered an ACL injury five years ago. The fact he’s still calling himself a Lion at that age is probably another conversation worth having.
Sauna Selfies and Sit-Ups: The Route to Everlasting Success?
There’s no definite explanation as to why so many players are playing beyond the expected expiry date, but there’s a multitude of possible factors, starting with the improvements in all aspects of sports science, from training and recovery to nutrition and diet.
Players, if they want it enough, can get those little micro gains that make all the difference in later years. For instance, another sporting icon LeBron James allegedly spends $1 million a year on his body, and at age 37 he’s leading the NBA in scoring. There’s no doubt Ronaldo is doing more than just saunas selfies and Zlatan is doing more than sit ups hanging off boxing bags. These are careful, meticulous creatures of habit and dedication, willing to go the extra mile to stay on top. It’s a world away from the hard living of Diego Maradona and Paul Gascoigne, and to a lesser extent Wayne Rooney, who burned brighter than almost everyone but burned out in their early 30s. Jamie Vardy, 35 and still razor sharp, is a slight exception here, given his skittles and vodka routine in the early stages of his career.
Cristiano Ronaldo One of Many to Adapt Both Physically and Mentally
Most of these top players have also adapted their games to keep themselves relevant. Ronaldo’s career has seen him evolve from a flying winger to a predatory penalty box player, enabling him to conserve energy for when he needs it most.
Other’s games were never based around pace and power, such as Benzema and Lewandowski, both of whom are at the absolute peak of their powers right now. Neither would ever have been considered lightning quick or a powerhouse forward, instead relying on technique, movement and general footballing IQ. They know where to go, when to go and that’s only developed over the years. A mental game as much as a physical. Watch Benzema and you’ll see a striker whose every touch has meaning.
What’s Next for the Benjamin Button Footballers?
Could the change in supposed peaks and career lengths lead to a reconsideration to the shorter term contract policy for players over 30 employed by many clubs? Could it lead to see more players joining Zlatan in the over 40’s category? Erling Haaland is probably the best bet, given he may be part cyborg.
In the shorter term, in the build-up to tonight’s second leg clash, Manchester United and Atletico Madrid’s second-leg tie will centre around two questions; can a 35-year old Luis Suarez come back to haunt United once again? Or will it be the 37-year old Ronaldo writing another chapter in his Champions League story? These questions wouldn’t have been asked a decade ago. There’s more life in the old dogs yet.
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