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Why are footballers playing for longer?

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FOOTBALL NOW is a new show that brings to light some of the global game's biggest issues, challenges, and debates.

It's a well-known saying that 'life begins at 40'. For footballers, retirement from the sport can often mean the opposite. But with advances in sports science and lifestyle choices changing, more and more professionals are extending their careers in the beautiful game.

In some of Europe's top leagues, the top scorers are comfortably over 30. The German Bundesliga's leading marksman is Robert Lewandowski, who turns 34 in August. Karim Benzema has already reached that milestone, but that didn't stop him from having the season of his life and becoming LaLiga's leading goalscorer in Spain. And in Italy, the 32-year-old Ciro Immobile was Serie A's top gun for Lazio.

Cristiano Ronaldo: 20 Years at the Top

Meanwhile, in England, 37-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo could be considered a geriatric while playing alongside 22-year-old Jadon Sancho at Manchester United.

Ronaldo played against Leon Osman at Old Trafford when the Manchester United star was just 19 years old. The former Everton player recognises that, as Ronaldo has aged, he's made changes to his game - but he's an example to any young players starting out in the game. He told Football Now.

"He's (always) in the right place. He has bursts, he has real impact moments within the game, and that is also what helps him prepare for the next game because he's not running 13 or 14 kilometres during the game. He gives you a good ten and a half, and its maximum bursts within that. So I think he is the model of what footballers should try to be"

Armando Franca/Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved
Cristiano Ronaldo is still one of the world's best players at 37 - Armando Franca/Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved

In terms of long-term longevity, Cristiano Ronaldo is impressive. However, he still has a long way to go to match the record of Japanese professional Kazuyoshi Miura, whose career spans five decades.

Kazuyoshi Miura

1986 Plays first game in professional football for Brazilian side Santos

1990 Makes debut for Japanese international team

1991 Wins first of four consecutive Japanese League Titles

1992 Scores first of 55 goals for Japan

1994 Joins Italian side Genoa on loan

1999 Signs for Dinamo Zagreb

2000 Wins 89th and last cap for Japan

2005 Joins Sydney FC on loan

2005 Makes move to Yokohama FC

2017 Becomes the oldest player to score in a competitive match

2020 At aged 53 became the oldest player to play in the highest division of a national league for Yokohama FC

2022 Makes his debut for the new club for Suzuka Point Getters at 55 years old

Kazuki Kozaki/Kyodo News
Kazuyoshi Miura is still playing professional football at 55 years old - Kazuki Kozaki/Kyodo News

Alan Gibson from JSoccer Magazine has followed Miura's career. He believes that there are contributing factors to why Miura and other Japanese footballers are playing for longer in what is traditionally a short career in professional sport.

"I think Japanese society has a hierarchy that respects age and experience and older people in general, and it's slightly transferred to football. I think the longer careers of football players can be put down to the long-established good habits. Diet, training, and history have kept the Japanese people and the Japanese players particular playing longer. Kazuyoshi Miura has had an incredible career. He had his extreme highs in the early to mid-nineties, with the low point being him being cut for the 1998 Japanese World Cup. It was a huge shock at the time. That was 24 years ago, and he didn't let it get him down because he's still here playing."

Former Premier League star Leon Osman retired from professional football at the age of 35. As a late developer, Osman took until 2004-2005 to be a regular in the team at 23 and won his first England cap at 31. The former Everton midfielder revealed to Football Now that the players' professionalism and dedication to looking after their bodies have undergone radical changes in the sport.

"There was a massive culture of maybe having a drink after the game and eating a chip shop takeaway and just making sure you were ready for the game and then doing whatever you wanted in between. During my career, things started to change.

I took a bit of time to get round to the idea that to get the best out of myself, I needed to sacrifice even more of my social life because there's a saying, and the saying is true: 'You are a long time retired', so get the best out of yourself now."

Experience is key

Younger players such as Kylian Mbappe and Erling Haaland may create the headlines and dominate discussions on transfers, contracts, and what lies ahead for them in the future, but it's also been a season in which experienced players have proved their value too. Fernandinho (37 years old) and James Milner (36) have made valuable contributions in the battle for the Premier League Title between Manchester City and Liverpool. Luka Modric (36) helped inspire Real Madrid to yet another Champions League final victory. Zlatan Ibrahimovic may be approaching the age of 41 but has played his part in AC Milan's Serie A title triumph.

Kirsty Wigglesworth/Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved
Despite being 36 years old, Luka Madrid played another key role in Real Madrid's latest Champions League win - Kirsty Wigglesworth/Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved

This trend of footballers extending their careers is only likely to increase as sportsmen and women aim to prove that age really is just a number.

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