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No countries for old men

It is Zinedine Zidane's fault. His startling, if brief, renaissance two years ago fostered the idea that footballers could reverse the ageing process and that an injection of experience was essential in the international game.

Euro 2008 provides a very different conclusion. As in much else, Zidane represents an anomaly. Few others are capable of leaving such an imprint on a major tournament (not to mention Marco Materazzi's chest) in their mid-30s. Three weeks in the Alps suggest that no one else can exert such an impact long after their supposed peak.

That is particularly obvious among Zidane's former team-mates. Raymond Domenech showed a fondness for youth in his choice of a bride, but not in his team selection.

The waning of Lilian Thuram's displays was only acknowledged two games too late. In the process, one of the greatest defenders of his generation risked tarnishing memories of a player who boasted both class and pace in equal measure. With the benefit of hindsight, he may not have extended his career with Les Bleus for a further two years.

Nor might Claude Makelele. His efforts were unstinting, but it was strange that a man rarely deemed capable of playing back-to-back games for Chelsea played three full matches within eight days, to a sad lack of success. The phrase 'one tournament too far' resonates for France and for them.

Their nemesis in Berlin is another to experience that. Materazzi, whose 35th birthday falls later this summer, discovered the difficulties of facing speedier strikers.

Positioning, understanding and nous can compensate in some situations, but it was not enough to prevent Materazzi's rapid relegation to the bench. Indeed, Italy started the competition with a mere two 20-somethings in their side, but players aged 30 or 31 - such as Gianluigi Buffon and Fabio Grosso - presented less of a problem than those around the sport's pensionable age.

The Czech Republic can testify to that. Their elder statesman Jan Koller scored against Turkey, but his immobility was apparent both against Switzerland and when Fatih Terim's team piled on the pressure in the decisive group game. Tomas Galasek was a second 35-year-old who proved a fading force.

So did several Greeks. Antonis Nikopolidis and Paraskevas Antzas both bowed out and Stelios Giannakopoulos may yet follow, but none took their leave in memorable manner.

Henrik Larsson, whose hobbies seem to include emerging from international retirement, was far from outclassed despite approaching his 37th birthday and spending much of the past two years in the Swedish league. Yet his was far from a triumphant return; he did not score and Sweden failed to progress beyond the group stages.

Perhaps others in Lars Lagerback's ensemble of consistent qualifiers should have been pensioned off. Niclas Alexandersson, also pushing 37, missed the latter two matches. Elfsborg's Anders Svensson, approaching 32, was preferred to the Lyon midfielder Kim Kallstrom, who has a superior domestic record, presumably on the grounds of seniority.

It was telling that the Swedes, Euro 2008's oldest team, tired as the tournament progressed.

It is hard to fault players hopeful of a final hurrah. It is tempting to think that, for three weeks, they could revisit their peak. Top-level sport can involve an element of self-delusion; the capacity to ignore your failures and believe in your capabilities can propel optimists further than the realists and the cynics.

A quest for glory can suspend critical faculties, and fine footballers should not be blamed for that. There was dignity, too, in Makelele's final statement: 'To have been allowed to wear France's colours, that's my trophy.' So criticism of him should be limited. Instead, the fault lies with their supposed superiors.

Managers' conservatism has been costly. It is understandable if there is a reluctance to blood untried players on the biggest stage. Ageism has only proved a problem for those unwilling to experiment with youth. There is the question where continuity of selection becomes complacency, where a faith in the familiar means form and promise can be ignored (and the answer may be 'France' or 'Greece' or Sweden').

Because the passing of time can be cruel, especially when its effects are not detected quickly enough. Some veterans no longer possess the athleticism demanded in an increasingly physical game. Increasingly, football may be a game for younger players. At 25, Kaka was the oldest of the three candidates for the World Player of the Year award in 2007; at 28, Ronaldinho is considered in irreversible decline by some.

Despite a marked shortage of prodigies in Euro 2008, the next generation have had their moments. The energetic Russians are the youngest team in the tournament, and Spain, where Raul and his contemporaries were ruthlessly discarded; indeed a younger collective, showed the stamina to score late goals in each of their three group games. A new-look Turkish side have proved the masters of the comeback.

While others have been consigned to the past, there are isolated exceptions amongst the aged. Croatia's Kovac brothers acquitted themselves admirably and Holland's captain Edwin van der Sar made some high-calibre saves. The oldest outfield player, Ivica Vastic, justified his recall for Austria.

Jens Lehmann, 38, and Oliver Neuville, 35, may bow out as winners with Germany, but the goalkeeper could also prove their downfall - something that would be greeted with some schadenfreude in his homeland - while the striker's impact has been negligible.

But Euro 2008 has not produced its Zidane. The dominant performers have been at their peak, not recapturing their form of a decade before. Austria and Switzerland have been no countries for old men this summer.

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