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Apr 28, 2014

Youth is wasted on the young

It was only six months ago that we discussed the Bundesliga's youth mania (see: teenagers become the new veterans, Oct. 1, 2013). That column was published a few days after Timo Werner, at 17 years of age, had become Stuttgart's youngest-ever goal scorer in the top flight and a few weeks after Levin Oztunali, another 17-year-old, had become the youngest man to play for Leverkusen in the Bundesliga.

Since then, the records have been piling up. In November, 18-year-old Niklas Suele became Hoffenheim's youngest goal scorer. In December, 17-year-old Valmir Sulejmani became the youngest player to make a top-flight appearance for Hannover 96. In April, Julian Brandt, at 17 years of age, became the youngest Leverkusen player to score a Bundesliga goal.

It was enough to make you nostalgic. Where are the battle-scarred veterans who seem to have been around forever, or at least since you first became interested in the game? In the 1980s and early 1990s, they were, well, not everywhere -- but at least common at most big clubs.

Bernard Dietz (Duisburg and Schalke), Michael Lameck (Bochum) and Manfred Kaltz (Hamburg) were all still kicking Bundesliga footballs at 38 years of age. The Mannheim legend, Guenter Sebert, played his last game in June 1987, when he was 39. Morten Olsen was less than two months shy of his 40th birthday when he appeared for Cologne in June 1989. Two months later, Manfred Burgsmue Iler scored Werder Bremen's go-ahead goal against Fortuna Duesseldorf. He was 39 years and 226 days old.

There was something reassuring about seeing Klaus Fichtel marshalling Schalke's defence in 1988 with the experience of his 43 years or knowing that whenever you bought Kicker magazine's preseason guide between the mid-1970s and mid-1990s, you'd normally find Mirko Votava somewhere. He retired from Bundesliga football at age 40 (and then played in the second and third division for another one and a half years).

When Votava made his final Bundesliga appearance on Dec. 6, 1996, the era of the veteran outfield player, which had been in decline for some years already, finally came to an end. Goalkeepers would continue to rack up the games and the years, but seeing truly seasoned players who weren't wearing gloves became a rarity. In the two decades since Votava retired from Bundesliga duty, only two players have made the all-time old-timers' list: Bayern's Lothar Matthaeus (who left the league in March 2000, two weeks before his 39th birthday) and Michael Tarnat (who was 39 when he played his last game for Hannover 96 in May 2009).

"The veteran" was a relic long before the Bundesliga clubs' youth academies began churning out teenage prodigies, so we have to conclude that the modern game has become too physically taxing for players in their mid-30s. (In the current season, only two 36-year-old outfield players have made an appearance, Hertha's Levan Kobiashvili and Bayern's Daniel van Buyten.) Physically taxing doesn't mean punishing, of course, as the players in the 1980s had to ride a lot more bone-crunching and tendon-tearing tackles than their modern counterparts. It just means too fast.

But there is some hope. Two weeks ago, news made the rounds that a striker called Kersley Appou broke a record that had stood for 20 years. Appou made an appearance as a substitute for Mauritius in an African Nations Cup qualifier against Mauritania at 43 years of age. He thus surpassed the record set by Roger Milla against Russia at the 1994 World Cup to become the oldest African international in an official, competitive FIFA match.

Eight days later, on April 20, Appou was also brought on in the second leg -- four days before his 44th birthday. So I guess he's still in the running to even break the world record, which is held by MacDonald Taylor Sr. In March 2004, he played for the U.S. Virgin Islands in a World Cup qualifier against Saint Kitts and Nevis. Taylor was 46 years old. (His 22-year-old son, Junior, is also an international.)

Milla's World Cup record, though, seems safe unless one of the national coaches springs a real surprise and calls someone out of retirement for the upcoming tournament. Even Milla's heirs, today's Indomitable Lions, now seem to suffer from the modern game's obsession with youth. Cameroon's oldest player in Brazil could be Kaiserslautern's Mohammadou Idrissou, who is only 34.

And yet, for those of us who like to see a man with greying temples saunter across the pitch, this World Cup is a tournament to pin some hopes on. We could see not just the two midfielders, Kim Nam-Il (South Korea) and Giorgos Karagounis (Greece), who are both 37. In all likelihood, there will be no less than three 38-year-old outfield players: Andres Scotti (Uruguay), Mario Yepes (Colombia) and Elvir Rahimic (Bosnia and Herzegovina).

Considering that we haven't had a 38-year-old outfield player at a World Cup since Denmark's Jan Heintze in 2002, that's three men to keep your fingers crossed for.