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Nov 18, 2010

First XI: Golden oldies

After Dickie Borthwick made headlines after turning out for Wyke Veterans on his 75th birthday, ESPNsoccernet selects some of the oldest players to graced the game.

Billy Meredith (1890-1924)

Sometimes hailed as the game's first superstar, toothpick-chewing Wales winger Meredith was a controversial and divisive figure but a man whose style and grace made him something of a darling of the press.

He began his career in 1890 with his local side, Chirk. In an anecdote recounted in The Guardian upon his death in 1958, when Manchester City were sniffing around him, the "angry townsfolk, roused by the thought of a local genius being sold for alien gold, seized one of the deputation and threw him into a horse trough".

However, he did join City in 1894, despite the protestations of the locals and his mother, and a year later abandoned his job as a miner to focus on football full-time. He was established as a legend at the club, even in spite of an 18-month ban due to match-fixing and a move to Manchester United in 1906.

His final international appearance came in 1920 at 45 years and eight months and - after returning to City in August 1921, 27 years after his first appearance for the club - he was still attracting positive notices in the papers for his performances. He played on until 1924, his 50th year, and he became the oldest player to appear in the latter stages of the FA Cup. That year's FA Cup semi-final marked his last appearance, at 49 years and eight months, in a 2-0 defeat to Newcastle.

"There is no secret about it at all," he said before his retirement. "I've been fit for 25 years, and I feel like going on a long time yet. I never take intoxicants. I do smoke a pipe, and I train regularly two days a week. My training is, and always has been, ball practice."

Neil McBain (1914-47)

A half back and later a centre half during a playing career spent at clubs including Manchester United, Everton and Liverpool, McBain was still receiving rave reviews during the 1930-31 season but decided to hang up his boots at the end of the campaign after two years as player-manager with Watford.

After spells managing Ayr United and Luton, he took some time out of the game before taking charge of Third Division (North) side New Brighton in 1947.

In March that year, an injury crisis forced him to return to action in an unfamiliar position, becoming the oldest player in a league match in Britain when he acted as a stand-in goalkeeper against Hartlepool at the age of 52 and four months. New Brighton lost the game 3-0.

The problems at the club did not go away - "We've had a wee bit of bad luck," he said later that year as the injury crisis robbed him of four forwards - and he was sacked in February 1948 with the club bottom of the table.

Stanley Matthews (1932-85)

"I say with the greatest confidence to any young professional footballer who is now reaching his 21st birthday - get it into your head that you have a good 20 years of football in you" - Stanley Matthews.

Matthews appeared to have lost the best years of his career as a result of the restrictions to English football brought about by the Second World War. He spent seven years with Stoke before the hostilities brought an end to normal competition during the 1939-40 season but, having served with the RAF, he secured a move to Blackpool in May 1947 at the age of 32 due to his business interests in the town.

"You're 32," the Blackpool manager Joe Smith said in a conversation with Matthews prior to the completion of the deal. "Do you think you can make it for another couple of years?"

Six years on, in May 1953, Matthews enjoyed his finest hour, winning the FA Cup against Bolton in a game dubbed the 'Matthews final'.

In October 1961, a 46-year-old Matthews returned to Stoke for a nominal fee, playing on until after his 50th birthday before calling time on his top-flight career in 1965. He had, he said, retired too early, but he played the odd match for Maltese side Hibernians until he was 55, and his final appearance came in a veterans match between England and Brazil at the age of 70 in 1985.

"He put it all down to vitamins and diet," his old team-mate Jimmy Armfield said on Matthews' 70th birthday. "He took vitamins and something no other footballer had thought about then or maybe now - carrot juice. He didn't drink and I've only ever seen him smoke once."

Salvador Reyes (1952-2008)

Still the all-time leading goalscorer at Chivas, Mexico legend Reyes joined the club in 1952 at the age of 16, winning seven league titles before retiring in 1967.

In 2008, though, he made his return to action for Chivas at the age of 71 in a league match against Pumas UNAM.

Perhaps surprisingly given that they had the world's oldest professional footballer in their starting XI, Chivas ran out 3-0 winners on the day, but Reyes' contribution was restricted to a 50-second cameo before he was substituted.

Reyes thanked the club for the manner in which they had paid tribute to his efforts and added: "Naturally I would have liked to play 45 minutes but I knew it wasn't possible, and after today I know that that's it for me."

Roger Milla (1965-97)

Milla is said to have joined his first club, Eclair, as a 13-year-old in 1965, although doubts over his date of birth have led to claims he may have been older.

He established himself as a fine player, having been one of the more impressive players for Cameroon during the 1982 World Cup, but he called time on his international career in 1987, in his mid-30s, and was in semi-retirement on the French island of Reunion at the end of the decade.

However, he was persuaded to take part in Italia '90 and, at 38, he became the oldest outfield player in that year's tournament. In his role as a supersub, he scored four goals as Cameroon reached the quarter-finals. He was made a prince in his homeland later that year.

In January 1991, he was all set to hang up his boots: "I said I would retire on January 1 if I didn't find a team, but all the club directors were on holiday so I'll wait a little. I'll give them until, say, January 15."

He did not find a new club at all, staying with Cameroonian side Tonnerre, and was then incredibly included in the USA '94 squad, apparently on the insistence of the country's president, Paul Biya. "Many people, including the minister for sport and some of my team-mates, saw no reason why an old man like me should make a return to the team," he told The Guardian a few years on.

Nonetheless, at the age of 42, he became the World Cup's oldest ever player and, with his effort in the 6-1 defeat to Russia, its oldest ever goalscorer.

Yuri Pudishev (1971-2010)

In October this year, one-time USSR international and current Dynamo Brest assistant manager Pudishev made a return to action at the age of 56 in a Belarusian league game in his club's fixture against BATE Borisov.

He came on as a 90th-minute substitute, taking the captain's armband as he established himself as the oldest player to appear in the Belarusian Premier League. "I was training twice a day," he said. "My entire body ached, but I have worked. With beer, and something bitter, I am restored. And champagne. But in moderation."

It was not the first time he had made a comeback. While working as an assistant for Partizan Minsk - then known as MTZ-RIPO - he made two substitute appearances for a combined 33 minutes in cup games in 2007 and 2008.

"I'm in better shape than a couple of years ago," he added in October. "I still want to play against Belshina and Torpedo (Zhodino). I have no aspirations to get into the Guinness Book of Records, but I'll play until I'm dead."

Socrates (1974-2004)

A star of the Brazil side at the 1982 and 1986 World Cups, Socrates returned to action 14 years after his retirement when he agreed to play for Garforth Town in England's Northern Counties East League Division One.

Owner Simon Clifford, the founder of the Brazilian Soccer Schools system, said ahead of his appearance against Tadcaster Albion: "He tells me he hasn't put a pound on since he retired and is still extremely fit."

Socrates made an honest attempt to sell fans on the experience ahead - "I'm 50, I've got a dodgy back and trouble with my ankle, but I can still bring some special touches to a game," he said - and 3,000 fans turned up to see him in action.

Having never been to the north of England, Socrates spent much of the game that November on the subs' bench wearing a hat, scarf, gloves and blanket, but he came on with 12 minutes remaining and the score at 0-0. The Daily Star Sunday referenced his "noticeable girth" but, in spite of his decline, he did fire off a thunderous 20-yard drive that demanded a good save.

Careca, the Brazil striker of the 1986 and 1990 World Cups, also made an appearance for Garforth in a 2005 friendly at the age of 44.

Marco Ballotta (1982-2008)

While the likes of Dino Zoff (41), Alessandro Costacurta (41) and Paolo Maldini (40) are obvious contenders for the list, another Italian has outstripped them as the oldest in both Serie A and the Champions League.

Goalkeeper Ballotta represented Lazio in a Champions League game against Real Madrid in December 2007 at 43 years and 252 days and, in May 2008, he set the record for the oldest player in Serie A at 44 years and 38 days. That summer, he hung up his gloves.

He did not call time on his playing career altogether, though, returning in November that year to briefly play with eighth-tier side Calcara Samoggia as a striker.

"For me, it's great news to play in a championship - even if it's the Prima Categoria - in a new position," he said. "I know perfectly what moves opposing goalkeepers will make and I can take advantage of it."

Romario (1985-2009)

There was some creative accounting involved in the end, but World Cup-winning Brazil striker Romario gave himself as much time as possible to match Pele's 1,000 career goals.

His career seemed to be drawing to a close in 2005 when, re-signing for Vasco da Gama shortly before his 40th birthday, he requested that he only play games that took place in Rio to spare him travelling.

Incredibly, he finished top scorer with 22 goals - two more than Carlos Tevez at Corinthians - that season. After stints with Miami and Adelaide United, he returned to Vasco in 2007, where he racked up the goals landmark.

After a brief stint as Vasco player-manager and some controversy over a banned anti-baldness treatment, he finally called time on his glittering career in 2008 at the age of 42 because, he said, he was getting too fat to play.

In November 2009, though, a couple of months shy of his 44th birthday, he was back: he made an appearance as a substitute for Brazilian second division side America because, he said, he wanted "to make my father's dream come true".

Pedro Ribeiro Lima (1999-)

Brazilian Campeonato Paraibano side Associacao Desportiva Perilima was founded in 1992 by Pedro Ribeiro Lima, who gave the team its title in reference to his own name. However, it was not until 1999, at the age of 50, that he made himself available for selection.

"I'm 58 years old but I feel 30," he told FIFA in 2007. "My dream is to reach 60 playing football. I can still play for 90 minutes, although I can't help as much as I'd like to. I stay in the midfield, instructing my team-mates. Above all, I play to motivate my team-mates."

He is said to be the oldest player to have scored a goal in the professional game, having netted a penalty in 2007 against Campinense, but Perilima suffered regular heavy defeats and have now dropped out of the Campeonato Paraibano's second-tier.

John Ryan (2003)

Doncaster owner Ryan, one month shy of his 53rd birthday, became the oldest player to represent a British professional club in 2003 when he came on as a substitute during his side's 4-2 win over Hereford.

Having played as a striker for pub team The Flying Childers in the early 1970s, Ryan had signed on for the club in the hope of fulfilling his lifelong dream. "Having spent £4 million, I reckon I've earned my moment of glory," he said before the game. "I scored a lot of goals in my time and it really would be something else if I could get one against Hereford."

He came on in injury time, getting three minutes on the pitch. "I didn't actually get a kick of the ball but I had a good run around," he said.

His performance came in Doncaster's final game before the Conference play-offs, and they were promoted into the Football League that season.

Substitute: Michael Foot (2003)

This late former Labour Party leader never set foot on the field for his beloved Plymouth Argyle, but he did become the Football League's oldest registered player when he was named in the squad as a present for his 90th birthday.

Described as an 'evergreen left-winger' in his player profile on the club's official website, vice-chairman Peter Jones told the Western Morning News newspaper: "We thought it would be really nice for Michael to fulfill a boyhood dream and become a player."

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