My partner in crime Andre (aka The Son of Prince) recently wrote about Landon Donovan's statement of intent to return to Europe to play a higher level of soccer. He astutely noted that Donovan is currently 27 years old, and will probably soon start to decline in ability. Donovan was quoted as saying: "The older I get and the more I play, the more I'm yearning for that highest level I can play at." This quote, together with Andre's post brings up an interesting question for me in today's game: when are players actually hitting their peaks?
In the recent past, according to pundits, coaches and Football Manager, players were often (depending on their position) thought to hit their peaks in their latter 20s. For defenders, their maturity and decision-making skills were commonly thought to be at their pinnacle between the (appproximate) ages of 28-32. For midfielders, the golden age was between 27-31, forwards, 26-30, and goalkeepers the ripe old age of 30+.
Recently, however, the speed and physicality of the modern game leads me (and evidently Andre as well) to believe that players are hitting their peaks, as well as declining, much earlier. Such mercurial talents as Ronaldo Luiz Nazario de Lima (aka Fat Ron), Ronaldinho, Michael Owen and Kaká all burst upon the scene at a relatively young age, but have been slowed down by injuries as they've matured. In addition, the emergence of players in the mold of Cristiano Ronaldo, Fernando Torres and Leo Messi as world-class talents in the nearly Olympic-eligible sub-24 age group serves as evidence that footballers in general are developing at a younger age in the modern game.
Over the past 40 or 50 years, football (soccer if you insist) has seen an incredible jump in speed, power and physicality, a phenomena paralleled in many other sports, such as American football, basketball, etc. As such, the modern footballer has become more of a model of physical prowess than simply a footballing brain and pure technical skills. These days, players such as the Englishman Theo Walcott, who depends far more on his otherworldly pace than his first touch and ball-striking ability (he only began playing football at age 10), are far more common than the sublimely skilled Juan Román Riquelme of Argentina, who is regularly beaten in footraces by both the Hare AND the Tortoise.
With this rise in the importance of physical attributes comes a decrease in the shelf life of modern players. While Riquelme can depend on his brain and touch until his late 30s, Walcott will only be relatively fast until (optimistically) around age 32 and then will come a dramatic decrease in his physical effectiveness. In addition, with the added physicality of the modern game, players who depend on both skill and pace are being hacked to pieces almost literally on a day by day basis. Kaká, Ronaldinho and Fat Ron are the best examples of this, with Kaká recently decrying an increasing tendency of opponents to try and tattoo their phone numbers on his ankles with their boots rather than attempt to mark him cleanly.
This change in the modern game has not come without a few anomalies that continue to ply their trades around the world. The names Maldini, Inzaghi and Makélélé come to mind as examples of those who have continued at the highest level in their mid-to-late 30s and beyond. However, for the most part, modern athletes seem to be falling apart as they approach the 30-year-old mark. In addition, the footballing prime seems to have shifted to a much earlier age, seemingly between 23-28. It will be interesting to see how the young talents like Cesc Fabregas, Leo Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo progress as they age, and to monitor their health through the years.