In the fifth age, most are merely average players

Image of Simon Kuper

A New Yorker cartoon a while ago nicely encapsulated our changing attitudes to age. In a fashionable bar, one ponytailed man in sunglasses is asking another: “What’s the rush to settle down? You’re only 53.”

When you turn 40, as I will this month, you naturally wonder whether you can delay the decay. If humans will soon routinely live to be 100, is there any hope for sporting triumphs after 40? If there is not, then what is the role of sport in the downhill phase of life?

In football, the quest for eternal youth is led by AC Milan’s Milan Lab. The Lab helped the club win the Champions League in 2007 with a team of thirty-somethings. I asked the Lab’s director, Jean-Pierre Meersseman, whether he dissented from the traditional view that footballers peaked at 27 or 28.

“I still would agree that it’s somewhere around that age,” he replied, disappointingly. “What we are trying to do is to keep them at that plateau as long as we can.” Was there a maximum age at which even supreme physical specimens had to retire from football? “I think it’s around 40,” said Meersseman.

Indeed, the average age of the world’s best football, baseball and basketball players has long remained static at somewhere between 27 and 29. Any athlete still playing anything but golf after 40 is considered a freak. I once asked the best-known example, Martina Navratilova, still winning doubles tennis titles at 50, whether she had any tips. “What I’m doing now is amazing,” she replied, disappointingly. “Gordie Howe [the ice-hockey player] is the only athlete I know that’s done it at this age. I don’t think that’ll ever be done again. Or maybe once we live 150 years, and everybody’s a lot younger at 50 than we are now.”

Even Navratilova could not win in singles after 40. If she lost her oomph, then the rest of us have no chance. Yet there is one thing in sport that probably does improve after 40: fandom.

It works something like this. Life is confusing and full of loss. You leave places, people die, and your own body changes so much that eventually it might as well belong to a different person. A rare constant in life, something that can stay with you from pre-school to grave, is often the sport that you follow. Rogan Taylor, scholar of football at Liverpool University, says that just as pre-industrial villagers marked the passing of time through agricultural seasons, urbanites use sports seasons. Every late summer the football season starts, as regular as the harvest. Or, as Nick Hornby wrote in his fan’s memoir, Fever Pitch: “I have measured out my life in football matches.”

This need for continuity is surely why more people follow team games than individual sports. We want clubs to have been there before we came, and to remain after we have gone. A team can take you through life, whereas a single athlete’s career might last you a decade. If sports clubs better understood what we want from them, they would not trade players so often.

The other evening here in Paris, I presented the theory of fandom as continuity to my friend Peter, a Tottenham fan. Nonsense, said Peter. Fandom wasn’t what it used to be. Now that football revolved around money, everything had changed: team shirts, kick-off times, the nationality of players, your club’s chance of winning something.

I said he had proven my point. The things he was grumbling about were breaches in the continuity of life. He simply wanted fandom to be even more constant than it is. I agreed that there were other ways of marking the rhythm of life – “we use ovulation”, a female friend interrupted us – but I said fandom was better than most. As this is my column, there is no need to tire readers with Peter’s counter-arguments.

This weekend I am going to Barcelona with two friends to celebrate our 40th birthdays. We have wangled tickets for Barcelona-Almeria. It would have been just as good a treat when we turned seven.

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