Age Matters: Why Some World Cup Teams Opt For Oldies
Argentina and Uruguay have the highest collective ages in the tournament. In Africa, youth is treasured. Experience? Energy? A demographic snapshot of Brazil 2014.
TURIN — The players that some of the South American traditionalists have called up to their World Cup squads are pretty old in soccer terms.
These teams proceed cautiously. They keep track of players who were sent abroad when they were young, sending them Christmas cards every year and awarding them prizes at the end of each season.
And so when the World Cup is on, they bring them home and rarely try out new talent. Not even Lionel Messi escaped this fate in 2006 when, at the age of 18 and already one of the world's top talents, he was just a World Cup benchwarmer.
Argentina and Uruguay are nostalgic, loyal to well-known names. Three rust-proof 33-year-olds have been called up: Martin Demichelis, Hugo Campagnaro and Maxi Rodríguez, cornerstone players who have tipped the Argentine team's median age to 28.5 — the oldest in the competition.
The Argentines like to stay on the safe side and keep the rookies as training partners. Eight years ago, Ángel di María — today one of the safest wingers — was left in training camp with the under-20s.
At each World Cup, a bus with young, new players follows behind the champions and helps the team to prepare. It's a supply chain in which the veterans are respected.
For Africa, it's quite the opposite. Each new team arrival who shows courage with the ball merits his place in the sun, and it only takes a moment to become one of the greats. Ghana and Nigeria have the youngest teams (24.9 and 25.3 years old, respectively), and that's even including Ghanian superstar Michael Essien"s 31 years.
They're fast, dynamic and mature quickly because they have to move to succeed. It's not by chance that the African teams all have similar formulas: One experienced player is enough for Ghana and the Ivory Coast, two each for Cameroon and Algeria. They leave their hometowns, play around the world and come home when they retire.
The masters of the tournament are the Spanish, who are not the oldest team but have the most collective appearances (1,375). They are also the most expensive team, as La Furia Roja is packed with 490 million euros worth of players. Of course, Spain won the last World Cup, so it will be defending its title with an ostentatious sense of royalty, in every sense.
Then there are the Belgians, who are bringing plenty of fresh meat to Brazil — a lot less "elderly" than usual. Most of their players have come up through soccer schools. With a population of just 11 million in Belgium, it's easy to monitor the best contenders. Before they even get to high school, talent has been spotted and is quickly fed into an intense training program.
The project began in 1989 and has morphed into what is known as the "golden generation." Seven of the Belgian team's World Cup players have emerged from this system.
Even Germany is leaving several veterans at home, although obviously not Miroslav Klose, who at 36 has his sights set on becoming FIFA's all-time top World Cup scorer. It's not a massively difficult challenge for him either: With just two more goals, he'll beat Ronaldo’s (the Brazilian one, that is) current record of 16.
Plenty of players — 16% of those called up, to be exact — play in England, and not just in the Premier League. The leagues there work so well that even in the lower divisions the players are world-class. Australia called up Bailey Wright from Preston North End, in the third division. But that’s another world.