I am always being asked how at my age I am so fit and active, still rushing around madly, still so productive, all these columns and books, blah blah, still at the top of my game, despite being 85 and three quarters. I smile modestly and say I have a young girlfriend, that’s why. Nudge nudge.
No, really they say, what is your secret? At least a bottle of wine every day. That’s my aim, though I often go over. Next question. I try not to go on about it too much. It sounds like boasting.
But dear God, if you ask any of today’s super-fit, super-successful older football stars, beware. They can go on for days about their wonderful health regime and lifestyle. Your eyes will glaze over as a messianic expression covers their face and their six-pack quivers.
Cristiano Ronaldo’s ten billion followers worldwide have come to expect updates on exactly how many meals he has had – none is the answer, just a dried fig on the half hour. Or how often he sleeps. He doesn’t, just six cat naps a day.
Ronaldo is 36, Lionel Messi 34, Luka Modrić 36, Karim Benzema 33, Robert Lewandowski 33, Thiago Silva 37, and Edinson Cavani 34, and they are all still at top clubs. Notice how nearly all of them are attacking players; yet they get the worst knocks, the hardest tackles. Traditionally, such players lost their speed and edge with age, while lumpen defenders soldiered on. Yet we have so many super strikers, still among us, not yet ready to hang up their boots.
Our native Brit-born oldies tend to keep quiet about it. I have failed to hear James Milner, 35, sharing his cold bath routines. Shame. Bound to come. And recipes for his nut cutlets. But Jamie Vardy has already begun to reveal his body secrets. Unlike Ronaldo, who was a boy wonder, Vardy had to slave away for years in the lower leagues, so perhaps he feels now it is time to share, to encourage les outres. At 34, Vardy is still a top man, still hitting the net.
I had always imagined him as an old-fashioned British player – a few beers with the lads after a game, full English on a Sunday. But blow me, he is just as fanatical about his health regime as CR7. Did you know he wears recovery boots after a game that pump lactic acid out of his muscles? And then he crawls into a cryoptherapy chamber. Don’t ask me. Just pass the Beaujolais.
Just a few decades ago, a professional footballer was considered old at 28. At 30, they began sliding down the leagues, their resale value plummeting. Now at 30 they are getting into their prime. Ronaldo has promised us he will be here to delight us at 40.
It’s strange in some ways. You might have thought the opposite would have happened, now that even the most lumpen Prem player is a multi-millionaire. That some would have said sod this for a lark, I’m off to stuff my face and visit some of my exotic properties I have never seen – no more training and having bastard coaches shout at me.
Yet I can’t think of one still-fit, still-desired player who has voluntarily given the game up. It demonstrates there is something else driving them on besides the money. This is clear in Ronaldo and the other oldies, a determination to achieve more. The non-rich often think that the wealthy in every field are purely motived by money. Which is bollocks.
So what has happened, why are there so many oldies today in football? One obvious reason is the improved diets, health and fitness regimes and medical treatment. So many players and managers in England today have come from other places, other cultures, bringing new methods and ideas. Being a vegetarian or teetotal would once have drawn ridicule in the dressing room.
Styles of play have also changed – and the rules. At one time, every team had an enforcer, a thug whose job it was to injure the opposition stars. Fancy dans can now last longer. And pitches are better. Playing on perfect grass is easier on the ankles than ploughing through mud.
Football fans live in good times, with so many players of greatness still active. Enjoy them.
[See also: Marcus Rashford and the new political football]
This article appears in the 06 Oct 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Unsafe Places