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.
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