From Cristiano Ronaldo to Karim Benzema - Euro 2020 set to be a playground for veteran superstars

Many of the most important players who could decide the outcome of this summer's European Championships are well into their 30s

First off the blocks at Euro 2020 are two countries entitled to feel they deserve to be at the front of the queue. They have both waited a long time for a rush of tournament adrenaline. Italy and Turkey will kick off the tournament in Rome on Friday keen to make amends for missing the last World Cup.

That’s the kind of disappointment that can make a competitor delay his retirement to try and correct it. Fitness permitting, the captains who fist-bump and exchange pennants ahead of kick-off at the Stadio Olimpico will have a combined age of 71. Burak Yilmaz, the 35-year-old Turkey skipper, is into his 17th year as a senior international. Giorgio Chiellini, who turns 37 in August, won the first of his 107 caps for Italy back in 2004.

They’ll be seeing plenty of each other over the 90 minutes, too, Yilmaz leading the Turkish forward line with what his compatriots hope is the same verve and intelligence he brought to his club football over the last nine months. He was Lille’s leading scorer at the end of a season where Lille, deposing Paris-Saint-Germain, finished as French champions.

A challenging duel awaits Chiellini in Italy’s back three, where he fully expects to line up, for the 322nd time in their parallel careers, alongside Juventus teammate Leo Bonucci, 34.

Euro 2020 begins a year after originally scheduled, because of the pandemic, and in spite of following a compressed domestic club season with a schedule unforgiving of older bodies, a trust in the stamina veterans is conspicuous.

Defending champions Portugal will be led by Cristiano Ronaldo, 36. Among Ronaldo’s vice-captains is Pepe, 38 and among his fellow travellers Jose Fonte, 37. Tournament debutants North Macedonia are skippered by 37-year-old Goran Pandev, who last week celebrated his 20th anniversary as an international.

Ronaldo may be an outlier in terms of his top-level endurance, but he also represents a generation who have studiously followed advances in sports science. With diligence and expert physiotherapeutic and nutritional advice, careers can peak for longer.

The stamina of seniors has been a feature of the season. Juventus’s Ronaldo finished as Serie A’s highest scorer while Luis Suarez, 34, spearheaded Atletico Madrid’s Spanish league triumph, a nail-biting title-race kept competitive right to the end by the match-winning excellence of 33-year-old Karim Benzema - recently recalled by France - at Real Madrid and 33-year-old Lionel Messi at Barcelona.

No striker will enter the Euros off the back of better club goalscoring form than Poland’s Robert Lewandowski, who turns 33 in August. Despite missing a month of the season with Bayern Munich, his 41 Bundesliga goals broke a 49-year-old goalscoring record in Germany’s top division.

His hair is flecked with a little grey around the temples, but the body and mind are as primed as they have ever been. “I don’t feel as if I am 32,” Lewandowski said during his pursuit of Gerd Muller’s 1971-72 landmark of 40 goals in a 34-match Bundesliga season. “I feel better than when I was 26 or 27.”

Lewandowski is the current holder of Fifa’s Best Men’s Player in the world, a trophy that, since it was first awarded in 2016, has only gone to a footballer over 30. Before Lewandowski, there was Messi. Before Messi was Luka Modric, who at the ripe age of 35 and three-quarters will lead Croatia into the European Championship.

For some giants of the sport, the tournament has landed the wrong side of a timeline. Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s proposed grand comeback, at 39, with Sweden has been stymied by injury. Spain will not be led by long-term captain Sergio Ramos, 35, who was dropped by head coach Luis Enrique amid concerns about his fitness.

And Spain’s is the youngest squad on average at the tournament. How their central defenders, all relatively inexperienced at international level, manage Lewandowski in the second Group E match, is a point of intrigue.

Germany manager Joachim Low, meanwhile, backtracked on a dogmatically pro-youth policy when he named his squad. More than two years ago, anticipating a Euros in the summer of 2020, he told Thomas Muller and Mats Hummels they were no longer needed, because a younger generation was to be developed

Muller and Hummels, 31 and 32, were then recalled last month for a Euros that will require all their knowhow. The German defence in which Hummels is senior marshall must cope with France and Kylian Mbappe - at 22 the superstar of the game’s younger generation - in their first fixture. They take on Portugal and Ronaldo, standard-setter for the over-30s, in their next.

Published: June 9, 2021 07:18 AM


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