Everyone knows football is a young man’s game, but science and nutrition are rapidly changing that.
You used to be able to play well into your 30s back in the day, with Ferenc Puskas and Alfredo Di Stefano becoming legends at Real Madrid after having full careers playing for other clubs for most of their 20s.
But then the game started speeding up, and turning 30 became a serious problem as your physical capabilities declined rapidly compared to the younger, more athletic players around you.
However, sports science, modern medicine and improved nutrition have taken us, in a weird forward-moving back, back to the 1950s and 60s where players can be well into their 30s and still sublime.
Up until 2021, the best player in the world by some distance was Lionel Messi who was 33 years old and still dominant. And when he fell off as a 34-year-old following a move from Barcelona to PSG, he was replaced by another 34-year-old in Karim Benzema.
At 33, Robert Lewandowski scored 50 goals in a season for Bayern Munich, impressing so much that Barcelona paid €45m to take him to Catalunya even though he turns 34 before the start of the season.
All these men are young pups, however. Forget 30, there are players in Europe’s top five leagues who are touching 40. Some are already there, like the glorious Jorge Molina, the Spanish striker who slammed in 10 goals and five assists for Granada even as they were relegated.
However while Molina is gone, others from The 40 Club remain, and more are set to join them this season. Who are they? Read on!
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The 40 Club:
Club: AC Milan
Turning 41 in: October 2022
The Main Man himself, Zlatan Ibrahimovic the ageless. The Swede looked done when he did his ACL while playing for Manchester United, but Zlatan wisely went to the west to complete his two years of recovery in MLS, playing at a lower level disguised the fact that he himself had declined.
Then, fully healed, he returned to Europe where his leadership and influence helped drive AC Milan back to the top of Serie A, claiming their first Scudetto since he was last at the club in 2011. Injury has been an issue for him but he signed a contract extension for at least one more season and would you ever doubt the mighty Zlatan Ibrahimovic?
Zlatan Ibrahimović has scored a goal in each of the last 24 calendar years:
◎ 2023 🔜 pic.twitter.com/U8BQgdknXa
— Squawka (@Squawka) July 18, 2022
Club: Real Betis
Turning 41 in: July 2022
Joaquin is a phenomenon because he is a winger who has continued to play and play well at the very highest level even into his 40s. About to turn 41, Joaquin just guided his beloved Real Betis to win the Copa del Rey and will now aim for glory in the Supercopa de Espana. He’s not as wondrous as he used to be, but he’s still great.
Real Betis have won the Copa del Rey three times in the club's history:
Joaquín has lifted two of them. 💚 pic.twitter.com/JIVJm9MBQp
— Squawka (@Squawka) April 23, 2022
Club: Rayo Vallecano
Turning 41 in: November 2022
Diego Lopez has been around forever, playing for a bunch of different sides including Real Madrid. He was most recently at Espanyol but this summer has rejoined former club Villarreal where he will compete to be the starting shot-stopper.
Turning 42 in: February 2023
Penneteau has had a long and storied career, playing over 150 Ligue 1 games for three separate clubs. Already 41, he joined Reims last summer and is still there right now as a back-up to Predrag Rajkovic.
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Turning 42 in: March 2023
Another 41-year-old, Gianluca Pegolo has spent the last nine years as Sassuolo’s back-up goalkeeper and he’s still there, although he is entering the last year of his deal. Will they renew their old man?
Joining the 40 Club this season:
These are the 39-year-olds who will soon become part of Europe top five leagues’ 40 Club.
Turning 40 in: August 2022
Liverpool and Napoli legend, World Cup and two-time European Championship winner… Jose Reina wears many hats, and now he’s back at Villarreal, whom he first joined 20 years ago, and will be a back-up there.
Club: Inter Milan
Turning 40 in: January 2023
Cordaz was a stalwart for Crotone for years despite his advancing age. Now due to their back-up ‘keeper essentially costing them Serie A, Inter have brought Cordaz in to cover them.
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Turning 40 in: January 2023
Quagliarella aka the man who only scores worldies. The Italian striker will soon surpass his former team-mate Antonio Di Natale by playing into his 40th year of life. A truly remarkable achievement – especially as last season was the first time in six years he didn’t reach double figures for goals.
Club: Free agent
Turning 40 in: February 2023
Staying in Italy, the giant Federico Marchetti is fresh off a stint as Genoa’s back-up goalkeeper. His contract has expired, however, with no word on where he’s heading next.
Turning 40 in: March 2023
Kawashima joined Strasbourg in 2018 on a one year-deal but was such a solid back-up goalkeeper that he’s still there four years later and will turn 40 before his contract expires at the end of this season.
Turning 40 in: April 2023
Franck Ribery’s late career in Italy is a delightful footnote onto an already magical career. Obviously he’s not as good but every now and again the old magic clicks into life. Ribery should turn 40 in April and as captain of Salernitana, you’d expect them to renew his contract beyond the end of the season, so long as he’s capable of still playing!
Club: Real Betis
Turning 40 in: April 2023
A man of great contrasts, Claudio Bravo once shut out Messi’s Argentina in back-to-back Copa America finals while also simultaneously winning La Liga back-to-back as Messi’s team-mate. He looked ferocious and imposing and then he joined Manchester City in 2016 and forgot how to save shots.
Bravo hung about at City as a well-liked back-up and even won a few cups too before moving to Real Betis where he has been one of a carousel of keepers and even now as he approaches 40 he is likely to stay at Betis, especially as he helped them win the Copa del Rey last season.