Today’s Superstars and the Age of Maturity

We hear it countless times these days: “If he’s that good at this age how good will he be when he reaches his peak?”

And if related to a player at the club we support, we drool and wonder at the prospect. It has been a long-held belief (based on the relative truism of history) that something in the region of 28 years of age is when a player reaches his peak.

Yes, there are variations; goalkeepers arguably peak somewhere in their 30’s and can be very good value in their late 30’s. Top defenders can play at the highest level into their mid thirties and often peak later than the average. Midfielders tend to hit the average. But what, I ask, of forwards and wingers, or, to lump then into a single category, the pacey, flair players who tend to steal the headlines and scoop the awards?

There is a body of evidence building in the modern game that suggests a revision of popular opinion is needed. I should preface this point with a reminder of the circumstances and challenges of professional football as it is today.

Let me concentrate on the English Premier League to make this point. As a product, it bears no resemblance to what it was 20 or 30 years ago, and never will again. Those of us who are nostalgic for those times can but dream. The reality is that the game has moved on, and how.

The money involved, obviously, is a whole new dimension, as is the unprecedented media attention and associated pressure for all involved. So how does the young superstar cope with all this and does it have an impact on his longevity in the game? I believe that it does – it’s not a given, but the odds are now stacked against them.

So what are the factors I’m talking about? You become a teen sensation in football these days and the media glare is instant. Money and adoration quickly follow, along with the pressure to continue to produce at the highest level. More and more it doesn’t happen long-term and I believe we have to adjust our expectations. So let’s go to the body of evidence.

Robbie Fowler is a legend of the KOP, and rightly so. He arrived on the scene in his late teens and was a goal scoring sensation. Capped by his country 26 times, for a number of years he could do no wrong. By the time he left Liverpool his best years were behind him. A sensation between the age of 19 and 23, Fowler’s last 3 years at Liverpool highlighted his decline, as Emile Heskey and Michael Owen became the preferred partnership up front. He has been a journeyman ever since and a shadow of his former self.

Which leads us to Michael Owen. With close parallels to Fowler, other than temperament, at the tender age of 18 Owen was presented with the challenge of living up to his own (no pun intended) billing, following that wonder goal against Argentina, and did so manfully for several seasons thereafter. But following his departure from Liverpool at the age of 25 (ala Fowler) it’s all been downhill for Owen and it seems certain now that he will never regain his former greatness.

And what of Nicolas Anekla (Le Sulk)? A teenage prodigy with Arsenal at just 17 and (briefly) with Real Madrid he left his best years in the 18 to 22 zone, and while not a spent force in the same league as Fowler, has never been the same player since.

Ronaldo, the Brazilian original version, burst onto the world scene as a teenager to be unequivocally recognized almost instantly as the world’s greatest player, so much so that Brazil virtually wheeled him onto the pitch to face France in the 1998 WC Final, despite evidence that he should not have even been in the squad. Winner of 3 World Player of the Year awards at ages 20, 21 and 25, Ronaldo has been a makeweight, albeit a very heavy one, at the clubs he has represented for 6 years now and is clearly long since washed-up as a force.

Ronaldinho arguably arrived as a superstar a couple of years late but appears to have lived out his best years by the time he was 25, securing the World Player of the Year Award as a 24 and 25 year old. Man City have just had a real escape in my view… he looks done and dusted at this stage.

I’m sure you can come up with other examples yourself and some that contradict the point. Ronaldinho and Owen could yet prove me wrong but I’m not expecting it.

Which leads me to Cristiano Ronaldo. What chance is there of him ever reproducing the season he had last year? 42 goals, every individual award known to man and the PL and CL titles! People talk of him improving and reaching his peak but based on recent history is there anything to suggest we haven’t just seen it?

And what of Rooney? Blasting himself onto the world stage at Euro 2004, he stole the show before getting injured. At 22 there has been constant talk of how good he is going to get, but, in truth, has he improved since 2004? He’s an outstanding talent but I believe that if you think he is going to be 20% better when he is 26 or 28, then you’re just kidding yourself.

Kaka and Messi are two others whose progress will be interesting to follow in the coming seasons.

Of course there are many mitigating circumstances for the plight of the players I mentioned: injury, lack of discipline, greed, immaturity, and loss of focus or ambition. Apply them as you will. The truth is that all of these pitfalls await the young players of today in spades and, albeit that some are down to luck or personality, few can avoid the dangers.

Owen and Fowler are a good contrast. With Fowler it was lack of discipline and poor professionalism. Owen was/is a model professional but injury has taken its toll. Ronaldo (Brazil) suffered from both, bad knee injuries and poor discipline. Anelka was all bad attitude, poor advice and loss of ambition (that goes with being a multimillionaire and having access to riches).

Ronaldinho, the good life, or to be more artistic, la dolce vita.

The risks involved in hitting superstar status in your late teens are huge in the modern era. The pressure and expectation are immense, as is the media spotlight. The money, tempting you towards a hedonistic and seductive lifestyle, is unprecedented. You start young, get a big reputation, and with the consequential attention from opposition defenders, what’s the prognosis for injury being inflicted by overwrought attention, leading to the shortening of lifespan (as a top player in this context)?

If your chief assets are pace and, above all, great skill at pace, when are they at their sharpest?

While maturity may bring greater vision, composure, nous and any number of other virtues you care to mention, one thing it certainly does not enhance is pace. Throw in injury, attitude, and discipline, all undermined by the multimillion pound fame game that engulfs today’s superstars and it’s almost a given that they won’t make it to a showboating peak at 28.

More and more the evidence suggests that they leave their best behind when they are mere innocents. The truth is that it is their innocence that brings forth their greatness. Once violated, the chance of progress is diminished and when it comes to the violation of innocence in the modern game, unfortunately, there’s nowhere to hide.

Long live Ronaldo, Rooney, Kaka and Messi. But don’t bet your house on it!

Transfer Rumors (4 August 08): Eto'o only wants four, (original) Ronaldo coming to England?, Tottenham in for Forlan, and more
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