Fading Stars and Nostalgic Fans

March 3, 2010

Soccer fans are some of the most loyal people in the sports World, and coaches, managers, and team owners in every sport often have to face the relentless pressure of thousands of fans who think they know what is best for their team. In the soccer World, this could not be more true with regards to aging stars of the past being included in the official 23-man squads for major tournaments like the European Championships and the World Cup. Some of the more recent debates over whether aging stars should play in the upcoming World Cup are reaching their climax as the tournament is only 100 days away. Let’s take a look at some of these aging stars that die-hard fans can’t seem to let go of.

Raul Gonzalez

Spain's Raul

One of the most controversial cases has been the exclusion of Spain’s 32 year old prolific striker Raul Gonzalez, the all-time leading scorer for the Spanish national team. The argument by former coach Luis Aragones was that Raul’s chance for leading Spain to glory had come and gone, and that the fate of the national team’s offense was now on the shoulders of the younger strikers David Villa and Fernando Torres. With this philosophy, Aragones enraged Spanish fans for lack of respect for their former talisman captain. Then Spain won the European Championship in 2008 and everyone understood. Even though Raul was and still is an incredible player, his time has past, and the younger generation of strikers are now the ones with the goal scoring duties for Spain. Still, die-hard Spanish fans argue that Raul deserves at least a roster spot in the 23-man squad for all that he has done for the team, but even new coach Vicente del Bosque inherited Luis Aragones approach of leaving Raul behind. Even though he remains a top goal scorer for Spanish giants Real Madrid, Raul’s days of leading the line for Spain are finished, much to the dismay of his biggest fans.

Just four years ago, Ronaldinho was regarded as the best player in the World, winning the European Player of the Year trophy as well as the FIFA Player of the Year honors. In four short years since, ‘dinho has left FC Barcelona and joined A.C Milan in Italy, and shocked most of his fans with his seemingly indifferent attitude towards soccer. Until recently. His resurgent playing form has seen the debate over his inclusion into the Brazil squad rage into relevancy as he is playing like the Ronaldinho of old. The masterful step-overs and mesmerizing dribbling coupled with unpredictable and deadly shooting from all distances makes it seem impossible that Brazilian coach Dunga could leave him out. Right? Wrong. Dunga has refused to recall the 29 year old Brazilian and insists that his squad is almost complete as is. One wonders: Why not include such a prolific and still incredibly talented player? Ronaldinho fans have been left to wonder what the midfielder has to do to get back onto the pitch for Brazil.

Keith Campbell from Queens, New York had this to say about Ronaldinho’s absence, “Ronaldinho, up until very recently, simply wasn’t in the type of form, both physically and mentally, needed to unseat Kaka, Robinho, or even Elano in a team that, under Dunga’s guidance, has less room for players that could redeem 85 minutes of uncommitted play with a moment or two of absolute brilliance. If he keeps up his recent form, he’ll be on the plane.”

This kind of optimism is something that ‘dinho fans like to see, but Dunga is as hard to read as any coach in World football so it all remains to be seen whether the former Brazilian star can claw his way back into the World Cup squad.

Michael Owen

England's Michael Owen

When you score for your country against a bitter enemy in the World Cup at the age of seventeen, you will undoubtedly gain a massive following of loyal supporters for the rest of your career. Such is the life of Michael James Owen, the English prodigy whose blazing speed and lethal finishing helped him score one of the greatest goals in England’s history vs Argentina in the second round of the World Cup ’98 as a teenager.

His following years involved ripping through the English Premier League for Liverpool FC and almost leading England to an upset victory over eventual tournament winners Brazil in the 2002 World Cup in South Korea. (For reference to the England-Brazil game, watch the Ronaldinho video above and witness Ronaldinho shattering English dreams with a famous free-kick) These days, Owen plays for Manchester United and is known more for his
presence on the operating table than his prowess on the soccer pitch. Still, he remains a clinical finisher and a top class goal scoring forward but like the previously mentioned players, he too has failed to impress the current manager of England, Fabio Capello, who wishes to see the 30 year old stay injury free and playing consistently, something that has not happened as of late.

Philip Yuill, an England fan born in Newcastle and living in the Upper West Side of Manhattan said this about Michael Owen, “I love him, no one else in the squad has his ability to score a goal. When you think he is having a poor game, he just seems to disappear away from his markers. I believe we need him there.”

This sentiment definitely has a nostalgic sense to it and many Michael Owen fans just like Philip will be sad to see him left out of the England side come June.

Donal Neligen, a software designer in New York City, and fervent Ireland supporter had an interesting take on manager’s decisions to leave older players at home.

“It never makes sense to leave out older players when they can still do the business. The pace at the World Cup is far slower than major European Leagues which has proven to be a gift to older players in World Cups past: Luis Figo and Zidane in 2006, Oliver Kahn in 2002, and Dunga in 1998. The older players and the experience they bring to the World Cup are usually a great asset to the teams they represent. Now when you mention crocked players like Michael Owen, these are players that aren’t regularly competing at the highest level not so much due to age but due to constant injuries. Take for example 38 Year-old Brad Friedel. He’s been retired from international football for 4 years but his form in the Premiership this season has been outstanding, far better in fact than the current US no.1 Tim Howard. With no injury problems in the latter stages of his career Friedel has played in something like 240 consecutive Premiership games destroying all records in that department and is as good as he has ever been.
I think we are a little hasty to look at the age of a player and assume they are past it. It’s more the physical damage than the years that affect performance towards the end of careers. Say you were to discover a 27 year old footballing prodigy who had never played the game then stuck him in a top team that player could potentially play into their 40’s before the wear and tear catches up with them.”

Donal definitely offers a unique perspective on the debate, and it is true that many people write off older players in International football when it is actually slower than the elite European leagues. Regardless, the managers are in charge of who gets picked for their squads and who doesn’t, much to the dismay of many nostalgic fans who don’t want to let go of their aging heroes.


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