How Significant is Age in Soccer?
By: Rohan Saklani
There are many attributes a soccer player holds that make them great and successful in the sport. Speed, endurance, strength, acceleration, agility, ball control, and pure power are a few but they all can change with the most important underlying factor in any sport that can affect a player: age. Unless you are Zlatan Ibrahimovic who is 40 and is still playing very well on the grand stage, then most likely you will be done playing soccer by the age of 35, if not much earlier.
The relevance of age is brought up when discussing what factors are affected due to the age of a player. With proper training, a player’s ability to play for longer periods is increased. Additionally, an aged player has more experience and years in specific tournaments so they understand the competition better than the young players. However, as a player gets older, it has been shown that speed and agility decrease which affects overall performance. Unless a player has been properly training and has favorable genetic history, they likely lose speed as they age, due to loss of flexibility and muscle mass. There is also a decrease in technical skills that comes with age. Players tend to lose foot-eye coordination and their reflexes slow down.
With all of these factors, it is safe to claim that younger soccer players tend to perform better overall. The statistics below can support the assertion that in tournaments, teams with younger players are favored and are more likely to win. Being in the prime of youth equates to being the peak in physical fitness and delivering superior performance at sports. Experience is a huge benefactor, but I believe that younger teams, especially ones with an average squad age of less than 27 will dominate the respective tournaments in the coming years.
The Influence of Age in the Champions League
A significant tournament to observe how age determines success in soccer is the sport’s most profound and historical European club competition, the UEFA Champions League. We first will analyze the average age of squads that have won the UEFA Champions League since 2000. A squad in this data means the entire team as a whole whether bench player or reserves because they all played a part for this team to win, in practice or during the game.
From analyzing the data, the winning teams' ages range from 23.7 to 26.9, with the overall average of the twenty-two champions being 25.06. Real Madrid won the most times during the 2000-2021 span with their oldest squad being 25.3 in 2002, youngest being 23.8 in 2016, and the overall average is 24.65. Bayern in 2020 is a very recent team that pummeled through their opponents, wrecking the likes of Tottenham 7-2, Chelsea 7-1 (aggregate), and Barcelona 8-2, and they are the youngest of the past 22 winners. The oldest squad in this graph is 2007 AC Milan with an average age of 26.9, including a 39-year-old Paolo Maldini, a 41-year-old Alessandro Costacurta, and a 36-year-old Serginho.
Other than that, these statistics are a strong indicator that Champions League winners are typically in their twenties, blessed with admirable physical abilities such as speed and strength. There isn’t an upward trend or downward, but rather a fluctuating data set. This also shows that younger players have better technical skills which correspond to better performance. From the last twenty-two winning teams, only three teams have won the tournament with an average squad age of over 26, supporting my claim that teams that average less than 27 years of age will prevail, at least in the Champions League.
Narrowing down the scope, the average age of a player in the Champions League is 24.9 to 26.5. Only two of the past twenty-two winners are older than that margin. Sixteen of them are within the margin and four of them are younger. This coincides well with teams between 25-27 years of age will end with victory in the Champions League.
The Influence of Age in International Competitions
To further emphasize how age factors into the success of a soccer team, we observe a similar trend with FIFA World Cup, UEFA Euro, and CONMEBOL Copa America winning teams since 2000. In the scatterplot below, the World Cup squads include 2002 Brazil, 2006 Italy, 2010 Spain, 2014 Germany, and 2018 France. The Euro squads are France 2000, Greece 2004, Spain 2008 and 2012, Portugal 2016, and Italy 2021. The Copa America winners are Colombia 2001, Brazil 2004, Brazil 2007, Uruguay 2011, Chile 2015 and 2016, Brazil 2019, and Argentina 2021.
Compared to their Champions League counterparts, these winners have a higher average, meaning their winning teams are older.
For the FIFA World Cup (in blue), the teams' averages range from 25.9-28.3, with the overall average being 26.58. Spain 2010 is the youngest at 25.9 with Italy 2006 being the 28.3. The average squad age of the 2014 World Cup winners Germany was 26.3. In comparison, the average age of all the squads that participated in the 2014 World Cup was 26.88. This signifies that Germany was among some of the younger teams in the competition. Similarly, 2018 World Cup winners France had an average squad age of 26, and the overall average of the teams in that world cup was 27.4. This also correlates with 2010 Spain's average age being 25.9 and the entire tournament age averaging 26.59. From the five confederations (CONCACAF - North, Central America, and Caribbean Association Football, CONMEBOL - South America, AFC - Asia and Oceania, UEFA - Europe, CAF - Africa) of the 2018 World Cup, the UEFA teams had an average squad age of 27.2, the second youngest of the five, and their teams performed the best of all the other confederations with the final four teams all being from Europe. This helps my case that younger teams perform better in tournaments and for the World Cup, younger than the average teams seem to perform better.
For the UEFA Euro (in red), the ages of the squads average from 26.3-28.4, with the general average at 27.28. The Euro winners are the oldest out of the three tournaments with five out of the six winners all having an average greater than 27. These statistics disagree with my claim that an average squad age of less than 27 will dominate competitions. Euro 2016 winners Portugal had an average squad age of 28.4 and the entire competition had an average squad age of 27.6. Euro 2021 winners Italy had an average squad age of 27.8 and the entire competition had an average squad age of 26.6. This tells us that older than average squads tend to win the Euro which contradicts my prior beliefs. Perhaps experience matters more in the Euros, and due to the Euro relating to World Cup performance (an example is Spain in winning Euro 2008 to winning World Cup 2010 to winning Euro 2012), there is a possibility that younger teams prioritize the World Cup whereas more experienced and older players go for the Euros.
For the Copa America (in green), the averages of the winning teams are in the margin of 25.2 to 27.1. The overall average age of the 2019 Copa America was 26.5, and the winner, Brazil was 27.1. Additionally, in the 2015 Copa America, the top 3 teams (Chile, Argentina, and Paraguay) with the highest average squad age went the farthest in the competition. This demonstrates that older than average teams have surprisingly achieved success in the Copa America, but are still slightly less than 27, which backs up my case that an average team age of less than 27 will attain triumph in competitions. Copa America winners have been slightly older than the rest of the teams in the tournament, but not as old as the Euro and their complementing competitors and as young as the World Cup.
From an individual standpoint, the Golden Ball (best player of the tournament) and Golden Boot (most goals scored in the competition) have been won by players of all ages. Most recently, Luka Modrić won the Golden Ball at 33 years old at the 2018 World Cup. The 2010 World Cup Golden Ball was given to 31-year-old Diego Forlan while Thomas Muller won the Golden Boot at 21 years old. Zinedine Zidane won it at 34 in the 2006 World Cup. Antoine Greizmann won the Golden Ball and Golden Boot at Euro 2016 at 25. The latest installments of the Euro and Copa America saw Ronaldo and Messi win their Golden Boots at 36 and 34, respectively.
Age vs Ballon d’Or
Instead of examining a whole team, let’s look at a singular player by measuring their age of the year they won soccer’s most prestigious individual award, the Ballon d’Or.
The Ballon d’Or is an annual award given to a soccer player who had a phenomenal season determined by helping their team win trophies or having the most goal contributions (goals and assists) of that year.
From this graph provided by Footiecentral, I noticed that the age group of 24-29 have the most frequent number of Ballon d’Or winners, with the age of 26 having the most winners at twenty-eight times. There is an upward trend of the number of winners from 20 years old to 26 years old, and then a noticeable decline from 28 years old to 41 years old. The age of 26 being the most common correlates well with my assertion that players younger than 27 will do well in competitions. This indicates that having players from 23-31 or an average of about 26-27 will help your team gain victory, which validates the ages of all the winners of the European and international competitions shown above. The peak or prime age of a soccer player, especially an attacker (due to most Ballon d’Or winners being attackers), is about 25-29.
Age vs Speed
One of the most crucial attributes of any soccer player is speed. Getting from one place to another quickly helps immensely in scoring goals. Speed endurance is another key factor in encouraging your team to score. Just look at Kylian Mbappe in the counterattack when France played against Argentina in the World Cup 2018. Or Gareth Bale’s outside-the-line run against Barcelona in 2014. Or when Arjen Robben dismantled the Spanish defense with a 37 km/h solo run which turned into a beautiful goal. As you get older, however, speed is one of the characteristics that noticeably declines.
An article by Barca Innovation Hub states that in the 2017-18 La Liga Season, younger players covered 2% more distance than players over 30 years old. There was also a slight decrease in the number of sprints or energetic efforts, and max speed reached. Players 35 or older have a very significant decrease in performance, interestingly seen via players of all positions. Additionally, the German Bundesliga had similar trends. Players over 30 years of age saw their total distance covered decrease by 3.4%, the number of sprints decrease by 21%, and the number of fast races decreases by 12%, compared to younger players. However, older players’ technical-tactical performances were enhanced with their successful passes increasing by 3-5%. It seems that physical performance decreases but their complete IQ improve as players get older, which matches well with Carles Puyol and many others.
Many factors affect a soccer player’s journey, but age is the greatest, as it impacts the other factors like speed and agility, thereby leading to a decline in performance over time. Another aspect is muscle strength and flexibility which decreases with age. These factors create an environment that allows players to peak performance at a younger age range, but also an age where they are fully developed. From looking at past European and International tournaments, we notice that younger teams will usually thrive. From observing the Ballon d’Or, ages 24-29 have the most success. Finally, as soccer players get older, their physical attributes like speed worsen, but their IQ strengthens. To sum it up, aging is a natural progression that no soccer player can escape. Soccer is a very unpredictable sport, however. There have been many surprising outcomes to which team has won what tournament. A young team like France 2018 and Bayern 2020 could dismantle their opponents with their energy and vitality while an older team like AC Milan 2007 can power through competition and triumph with their experience and maturity. At the end of the day, age can be one of the many reasons that can affect a team’s road to victory.
Footiecentral, bwin, PerfectSoccerSkills, FeedMeGoal, Statista (euro 2021), Statista(world cup 2014), Statista(world cup 2018), Barca Innovation Hub, Sportskeeda, Transfermarkt.us, DailyRecord, FIFA World Cup Awards(wikipedia), UEFA European Championship Awards(wikipedia), 2019-20 UEFA Champions League(wikipedia)