When a fee is attached to a name you can almost feel the thrumming of mental arithmetic in the air. ‘£50 million for a 29-year-old … which means he has 39.4 months of good football in him. Factor in the three previous injuries, divide by the amount of wrinkles on his face …. and you’ve got a rip-off’.
Truly, football is a workplace where thoroughly well-remunerated ageism is rampant.
Sympathy for slightly older, privileged young men may be rightfully in short supply – but these are the players who win titles. ‘Resale value’ has yet to win a game.
MOURINHO’S RAGE OVER AGE
Which is why it is easy, even allowing for his grumpy demeanour, to understand why Jose Mourinho is so frustrated by Manchester United’s tentative approach to the transfer market this summer.
Chief transfer negotiator Ed Woodward is reluctant to fork out £50m for either Ivan Perisic or Willian, both of whom are doomed to turn 30 very soon, given that he has already spent a hefty chunk on Nemanja Matic and Alexis Sanchez, two other players pushing their fourth decade.
As it turned out, the £40m paid for Matic – which caused many to wince at the time – is by any metric now considered a bargain. Sanchez’s first six months at Old Trafford did not pan out as smoothly as envisaged yet, even factoring in his wages, very few players of his ilk are ever available at such a cut-price – £25m – on the open market.
Woodward has also pussy-footed around Tottenham’s Toby Alderweireld, also the grand old age of 29, when United are crying out for a leader in defence.
But that’s Mourinho’s priority, not Woodward’s, who is happy if an inconsistent Eric Bailly retains his value while he is busy finding United’s next official green tea partner.
According to official figures, United earned £581m in 2016/17 – without Champions League revenue. Mourinho should reasonably be granted everything he demands but, always gnawing at the back of Woodward’s mind, is potential profit on the balance books over trophies in the cabinet.
WORTH THEIR WEIGHT IN YEARS
Of course, there are exciting teams in Europe who barely possess a veteran between them. Liverpool do not have a player aged 30 or older among their starting XI, though it should be said that they have not yet won a trophy under Jurgen Klopp, and are reportedly pursuing a 29-year-old Domagoj Vida to strengthen a defence that has long been their Achilles heel.
Manchester City boast some of the most intriguing young players in Europe yet are still anchored by Fernandinho, their chief creator David Silva is 32 and Vincent Kompany is a player’s player that the likes of a United do not possess.
The pattern only becomes clearer across Europe. Gerard Pique, at 31, remains emblematic of Barcelona’s defence. New arrival Clement Lenglet was bought in the hope, rather than the certainty, of replacing him while Colombia defender Yerry Mina’s youth seemingly won’t save him from the exit.
Ivan Rakitic, Sergio Busquets, Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez are among the 30-somethings. The lack of players to succeed them is a genuine concern but that is a problem with the pipeline at La Masia drying up, rather than the effectiveness of the current squad.
Real Madrid would not have won the Champions League three times in a row without Sergio Ramos, Luka Modric and Cristiano Ronaldo in a healthy autumn of their careers.
OLD LADY HAS THE RIGHT IDEA
The one club to have truly recognised the power of such ‘oldies’ is Juventus. They do not have the revenue stream of the Premier League, or even La Liga, but there is no prejudice in the pursuit of glory.
It is easy to say that Juve have staked their short-term future on a 33-year-old – a genetic freak of a 33-year-old – but Ronaldo is only one part of an experienced puzzle.
Under Max Allegri, the Old Lady featured the tenth-oldest starting XI in Champions League history back in 2016/17 in a 4-0 victory away to Dinamo Zagreb. Humbled only by a rampant Real in the final that year and the quarter-final last, the core remains intact.
Take what they’re worth in cash out of it. A 34-year-old Giorgio Chiellini is priceless. Blaise Matuidi was one of the star performers for France at the World Cup.
Mario Mandzukic is the hard-working attacker any squad needs, Claudio Marchisio, Juan Cuadrado and even Andrea Barzagli, at 37, experienced players to lean on.
Juve have got younger through the likes of Emre Can, Rodrigo Bentancur and Joao Cancelo recently but without dumping or marginalising their veterans.
Italians have always respected the value of years. So don’t be scared, Real Madrid, of replacing Ronaldo with a 31-year-old Edinson Cavani. Go for a 30-year-old Gonzalo Higuain, Chelsea, and be rewarded with goals.
There are no prizes in football awarded for economics. It’s time to respect the elders.
If everybody is really honest, none of us expected the Spanish giants to make a move for the 21 year-old winger, who was flying distinctly under the radar despite delivering two and a half seasons of impressive performances with Bordeaux.
When Roma made their move for the man, it raised few eyebrows in the global media scene and the deal would have gone through as a fairly routine summer deal. But then Barca decided to gazump the Italian club, whisk Malcom away and now – quick as a flash – he finds himself ready to line up with Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Philippe Coutinho.
That deal had been touted for a couple of weeks and, although the fee looked very inflated for a player who will soon turn 30, it made a certain amount of sense: here was a seasoned performer on the highest of stages who had just returned from the World Cup Finals with Brazil.
Whether Barcelona needed him or were getting a good deal was debateable, but Willian did at least look like a Barca-calibre kind of player. Malcom, however, came as a bolt out of the blue.
Or did he? Did Barca really only jump into the deal after he had already agreed to join Roma? Or had they been tracking him for months? And were they really pursuing Willian with determination? Or was that just speculation fuelled by agents or the media?
In truth, nobody knows. Every transfer within every transfer window contains layers of intrigue which mean ‘the truth’ is always tough to decipher – even for those in the middle of everything, never mind those of us peering in from the outside.
The biggest transfer story this summer, for example, is Neymar’s off-on-off switch to Real Madrid. At the moment, that move doesn’t look like happening. But it wouldn’t take much for the deal to reignite, and right now even Neymar’s father (probably the most important figure in the player’s future) won’t know for sure whether it will or won’t.
This uncertainty and unpredictability might be a frustrating state of affairs, especially in the fast-moving modern world where we like to veer between dramatic extremes with little margin for anything in between.
“Come on!” we might rage. “What’s happening with Neymar? Either he’s moving to Real Madrid or he’s not!”
To answer, “Well, he might. But he might not,” appears to be entirely unsatisfactory, but it’s the truth. The transfer market is a complex and complicated environment, where nobody really has full control over anything (even Jorge Mendes) and every potential deal depends on a range of unconnected factors which could blow up or subside at any given moment.
This means that some ‘obvious’ deals never happen (Gareth Bale to Manchester United), whereas other apparently unlikely moves end up going through (Cristiano Ronaldo to Juventus). Even the tightest of ‘done deals’ can unravel at the last minute, replaced instead by a sudden jolt which nobody had anticipated.
Similarly, it’s often very difficult to predict what will happen to signings when they join up with their new clubs, and that’s certainly the case for Malcom at Barcelona.
Does Ernesto Valverde intend to plug him straight into the first team, presumably on the right wing? Or is he intended to be a bench-warmer, competing with fellow youngster Ousmane Dembele for a place in the starting line-up?
We just don’t know, and at the moment neither does Valverde, because a range of factors will have their say including: which formation will Valverde employ, a continuation of his 4-4-2 or a return to the club’s traditional 4-3-3? Where does the coach see Coutinho fitting in, as a midfielder or a winger? Will new signing Arthur command a starting place, and what would that mean for Ivan Rakitic? Has Luis Suarez, now 31 years old, entered a decline? Is Dembele ready to contribute with more consistency? Where will Messi play? And, of course, how quickly will Malcom himself settle and adapt?
Before we can assess whether the young Brazilian will have a major impact at the Camp Nou, all those questions have to be answered. And at the moment, the only honest answer to all of them is that we don’t know. In most cases, even Valverde doesn’t know.
Of course, that shouldn’t stop us from speculating and debating – that’s part of the fun of football. And the more informed our speculations and debates are, the better. But we should always bear in mind that nobody has all the answers, and that anyone who claims otherwise is lying.
Sharp suit, eyebrows plucked to such perfection that a Kardashian would ‘throw shade’ at them and a self-satisfied thumbs up. This was fittingly gaudy further confirmation, if needed, about the Portuguese’s unchecked ascension to phenom.
Away from the diatribes about the sport’s premier narcissist and the trophy which caters to this behaviour, an innate truth is to be found.
To move level with the apparently incomparable Lionel Messi on a quintet of victories is incredible.
But to achieve parity from 4-1 down to the Argentine speaks volumes about a figure who has allied insatiable desire and divine talent like no other figure in the storied history of the Beautiful Game.
Another supreme challenge awaits in 2018. For the first time since the Netherlands’ Wesley Sneijder seven years ago, existential threats to football’s duopoly can be found in both the rise of Neymar and increasing prominence of a rising Real Madrid superstar.
The question now is whether Ronaldo – and even Messi, to a lesser extent – can go to the well once more?
Ronaldo’s sweeping up of the individual honours has come at a time when careers are traditionally beginning to wind down. Of the multiple Ballon d’Or winners, only fellow Madrid luminary Alfredo Di Stefano was older when he collected his last one – the Argentine at 33 in 1959 edging out his Portuguese successor by one year.
France playmaker Michel Platini was 30 when handed it for the last time. Johan Cruyff’s run of success ended at 27.
There have been diverging hints this term about which fork Ronaldo is charging down. Just two of his 67 attempts on goal in La Liga have gone in, yet in the Champions League he’s become the first footballer to score in all six group matches.
That European competition also defined his greatness in 2016/17. An incredible 10 strikes were registered in the knockouts on the way to Real becoming the first club to return the trophy since AC Milan from 1988-90.
History will need to be repeated to hold off the pretenders to his throne during a year which will be defined by World Cup 2018.
Chief among them is Neymar. With the lavish Paris Saint-Germain project built around the €222 million (Dh961m) forward and with Brazil installed as favourites for next summer’s global extravaganza, usurpation could be at hand.
An enemy within also exists for Ronaldo. The irrepressible Isco was unquestionably Spain’s best performer this year, head coach Zinedine Zidane unpicking his latent talents.
The playmaker already looks on course to better last season’s combined tallies of eight assists and 11 goals in La Liga and the Champions League.
If Madrid become European kings for a third time in a row, the Andalusian might be their major source of inspiration.
Ronaldo’s unquenchable drive to be No1 means he will be aware of old rivals and emerging claimants.
Not that their challenge will create fear. Precedent dictates it’ll only drive him to new heights.