Thanks to the advancement of sports science and training regimes, age is increasingly becoming ‘just a number’ in the world of football.
Advancing into your thirties is no longer the signal to simply wind down your career anymore. Instead, some get better with age, calling up all of their experience to enhance their game, while others simply see their advancing years as just another challenge to overcome and an opportunity to further prove themselves to the world.
Right now, there is a host of players aged 35 and above operating at a world-class level in Europe’s top five leagues. We’ve picked out who we believe to be the best here.
Disagree with any of our picks? Feel we’ve left someone out? Be sure to let us know on Facebook and Twitter.
Kicking off our list is the man who has guided Manchester City’s midfield (and often defence) through the club’s most successful period of all time: Fernandinho. Sure, the Brazilian is now advancing well into his thirties, but he remains an integral part of Pep Guardiola‘s dressing room while, on the pitch, he is often used as the player to keep the back door shut as City spent most of the match marauding forward. To date, Fernandinho has lifted three Premier League titles, five EFL Cups and an FA Cup with the Citizens, he’ll certainly be adding to that collection this season.
Like a fine wine, Fabio Quagliarella has only improved as he’s aged, posting goal tallies of 19, 26 and 11 in Serie A over the past three seasons despite now being closer to 40 than 30. The 28-time Italy international opened his 2020/21 account after just two Serie A games and has continued to find the net with regularity for Sampdoria thereafter.
36 years old and still turning out of the Italian national team, as well as leading Juventus to another Serie A title, there’s no stopping Giorgio Chiellini. He might not be the quickest out of the blocks anymore but, then again, Chiellini never was Flash Gordon to begin with. Instead, the centre-back has used his physicality and supreme reading of the game to gobble up opposition strikers and ensure that his 18-yard-box has remained a largely danger-free zone. He continues to command regular minutes under former teammate Andrea Pirlo, although the Old Lady once again suffered Champions League heartache at the hands of Porto recently.
Club: Real Madrid
From winning four Champions League titles with Real Madrid to playing in a World Cup final with Croatia, not to mention winning the prestigious Ballon d’Or award, there isn’t much Luka Modric hasn’t done in the game.
The 35-year-old continues to pull the strings in midfield Los Blancos, too, while just last season, he provided the second-highest number of La Liga assists (7) among Real Madrid players as Zinedine Zidane’s men wrestled the title from Barcelona.
They may be on the road to recovery now, but there’s no doubting Arsenal’s defence suffered for the loss of Laurent Koscielny, who left for Bordeaux last summer. The French veteran provided experience and stability at the back, as well as an excellent reading of the game and robust approach. He continues to do so in Ligue 1 as he captains Bordeaux, who he helped to a 12th-place finish during the shortened 2019/20 campaign.
Long gone are the glory days of Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben tearing Bundesliga full-backs apart for Bayern Munich, but don’t for one second think that either are done playing yet. Robben is back in the Eredivisie with Groningen (although he picked up an injury shortly into his debut) while Ribery is still demonstrating his creative wizardry in Serie A. The Frenchman is still chipping away from Fiorentina this season, while the 37-year-old managed three goals and three assists in just 19 starts for La Viola last term.
Club: Inter Milan
Age can often be nothing more than just a number for goalkeepers and that’s certainly the case for Samir Handanovic, who continues to hold onto the No.1 shirt for Inter despite being 36 years old. Handanovic kept the second-highest number of clean sheets (13) among Serie A goalkeepers last season as the Nerazzurri finished as runners-up to Juventus and will be looking to go one better in both respects this time around.
OK, so Thiago Silva’s Premier League debut for Chelsea might have been a disaster but since then, he’s shown everyone why he’s not hung up his boots yet, often being the Blues’ best defender at times. The 36-year-old made nine Champions League appearances for PSG last season as the Parisians reached their first-ever final and continued to look evergreen during another Ligue 1-winning campaign. Factor in that he continues to stake his claim for a place in the Brazilian national team (he picked up 12 caps in 2019 alone) and you begin to see just why Frank Lampard brought him in over the summer. He’ll be keen to make an impression on former PSG manager Thomas Tuchel once again.
Club: AC Milan
At this point, it probably makes sense to start asking whether or not Zlatan Ibrahimovic is actually human. The self-described “Benjamin Button” of football seemed to be on a downward spiral when he left Manchester United in March 2018 with injuries creeping into his game. However, he joined LA Galaxy and showed everyone he was still able to bully defenders and find the net with alarming regularity, scoring 53 goals in 58 appearances for the club, including some truly remarkable strikes.
Then, the former Sweden international moved back to Europe with AC Milan. Could he still cut it in Europe’s top five leagues? Well, Ibrahimovic netted 11 times in 20 appearances across all competitions last season and has continued in that manner in 2020/21, so we’ll let you be the judge of that. At 39 years old, Ibrahimovic is arguably playing at a higher level than we’ve seen him at since his PSG days.
Club: Real Betis
Probably one of the funniest characters in football, Joaquin has made well over 400 appearances across all competitions for Real Betis to date, as well as turning out for the likes of Valencia, Malaga and Fiorentina. And even at 39, he continues to make his presence felt.
Joaquin scored 10 goals across all competitions last season, helping Betis fight off relegation in the process, and has continued to hold down his place in Manuel Pellegrini’s side in 2020/21.
“If I can do another year after this one, if my body can take it and they want me to, then you won’t be able to drag me away,” he said recently when asked about thoughts of retirement.
Even with Ibrahimovic turning back the clock. Even with Handanovic keeping Inter locked up. Hell, even with Joaquin cracking all of his jokes. Was there ever going to be anyone else topping this list other than Cristiano Ronaldo?
The 36-year-old is not even thinking about hanging his boots up yet but already, he’s an absolute legend.
After ending his ridiculously successful spell at Real Madrid in 2018, Ronaldo has continued to prove himself as one of, if not the greatest of all time (let’s not open that can of worms again, though OK?) by scoring at a rate of 0.75 goals per game across all competitions for Juventus, helping the Old Lady to another two Serie A titles.
Furthermore, at international level, Ronaldo recently surpassed the 100-goal mark for Portugal and has 16 goals in 11 caps for his country since the start of 2019, during which time he added to his 2016 European Championship crown by winning the inaugural Uefa Nations League.
When will Ronaldo stop? What will his club and international goal tallies read when that happens? And just how big will the five-time Ballon d’Or winner’s trophy cabinet become? Place your bets now!