The level of athletic performance peaks during youth and professional sports careers are significantly shorter than for most other vocations. This is especially true for sports that require a lot of movement, with soccer as a prime example. Even the best players eventually reach the point where they can’t keep up with younger challengers and have to call it quits, making way for the next generation of stars.
However, some players age with more grace than others and find ways to compensate for the diminishing speed with other qualities. Injuries represent another factor that impacts at what age soccer players tend to retire. That’s why certain individuals are able to sustain much longer careers than others and why it’s difficult to predict the exact retirement date for any particular player.
How long does a professional soccer career last?
For a player to be considered a professional, he must be signed to a club and appear in regular games. That means his abilities (both physical and technical) must exceed a certain threshold, or his spot will be taken by another player. Maintaining a high level of play over many years is extremely difficult and requires enormous sacrifice regardless of the amount of natural talent, so many players reach elite status only to disappear a few short years later. Perhaps the best example is former Brazilian striker Ronaldinho, who was once considered the best in the world but was out of soccer completely just half a decade later.
On the other hand, the most successful athletes can remain relevant in their sport for a very long time. Since many of them start in their teenage years and continue playing deep into their thirties or beyond, careers longer than two decades are relatively common. As athletic training procedures and regenerative medical treatments continue to advance by leaps and bounds, the length of soccer careers is generally increasing, and top players tend to decline slower than ever before. With this in mind, we can expect the age at which soccer players retire to slide back a few years for future generations.
What is the typical age for a soccer player to retire?
Many different factors impact the decision at what age to retire, from physical health and level of play to financial and social considerations. Some players quit the game as soon as they start feeling any slippage, but others cling to their careers until the last moment possible. Still, we can talk in general terms about the average age at which soccer players retire while allowing for individual differences. This is useful for observing wider trends and understanding a typical career arc for a soccer player.
The mid-thirties is the critical period in which a vast majority of athletes end professional engagements and start the transition to a second career. Most players will retire at some point between the ages of thirty-two and thirty-seven, so the mean could be somewhere around 35. At some positions such as goalkeeper or defensive back, the careers tend to be slightly longer, but these players are also generally done by the time they reach their early forties. It is very rare for a high-level footballer to continue playing after the age of 40, especially in top leagues where the competition for roster spots is unbelievably fierce, and the pressure to win is immense.
Who are the oldest soccer players to compete at the elite level?
There are exceptions to every rule, and a few football players continue to defy the odds with their longevity on the pitch. In a few instances, old soccer players continued to appear in regular games well past the age when they would be expected to end their careers. It may sound unrealistic, but a couple of guys managed to play long into their fifties and continue to vie for the title of the oldest professional soccer player in the world. Robert Cardona (59) of Uruguay and Kazuyoshi Miura (55) have been chasing the ball for many decades, and they are still showing no signs of giving up.
If we look only at famous footballers, Italian goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon who still plays for Parma FC at the age of 44 is currently the best example of a legend that refuses to go away. Focusing on the players who appeared in a World Cup, the record is held by another goalkeeper, Essam El Hadari who represented Egypt at the 2018 World Cup when he was over 45 years old. The oldest soccer player to score a goal in the World Cup was Cameroonian Roger Milla, who was 42 years old in 1994 when he capped his illustrious career with another goal for his national team.
Can old soccer players stay effective in their autumn years?
Speed and agility are essential in soccer, and once these attributes start to erode, players have trouble keeping up with younger rivals. This is why an average player tends to become visibly less dangerous on the field in his thirties, before eventually experiencing a steep decline and ultimately losing his spot on the team. This is evident across all positions but is more drastic for strikers and offensive midfielders, who have more dynamic roles. However, a handful of the very best players are able to compensate for speed with skill and intelligence, finding new ways to contribute to team success and earn their keep.
To find examples of stars that aged well and remained effective past the age at which most soccer players retire, we need only to look at Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. Despite being well over 35, they are both still the focal points of their national teams and command astronomical salaries from their clubs. Zlatan Ibrahimovic is another interesting example, as he became one of the best players in Major League Soccer after he reached a point where he wasn’t dominant in Europe any longer. Still, such virtuosos are few and far between, and lesser players can’t really compare to them.