It is amazing when a youngster comes through at a football club, a big buzz goes out around supporters that there is this 16-year-old who is the ‘next …………….’. Thank god for the internet and things like the Next Gen Series, as now supporters can actually have a valid claim when they say ‘I have seen him play and he is very decent etc’. Remember the excitement when Wayne Rooney appeared on the scene? Thanks to the internet, I actually had seen him play and seen him score a ridiculous 35-yard rocket from the rebound of the free-kick in an FA Cup youth semi-final against Spurs.
It wasn’t always like this, 16-year-olds were rarely given a first team opportunity in years gone by and a 16-year-old has never played for England, but a 17 years and 75 days old Theo Walcott has. Around the world you find the debuts of youngsters of all ages, like in July 2009 when a Bolivian boy called Mauricio Baldivieso made his debut for Bolivian top flight side Aurora at only 12-years-old. This is absolutely mental and the debut came so early because his dad was the coach of the team. True to script, someone crunched him within a few minutes of him coming on, he went down and rolled more times than a Dutchman in a coffee shop, sparked a mass brawl and then spent five minutes crying on the side of the pitch before returning to a standing ovation, history right there.
Google the name Mauricio Baldivieso and you will find that he is now 15-years-old and struggling for a career; just because you are young doesn’t mean you are any good. Signing teenage players seems to becoming the norm with transfer activity for academy-aged players rife. Kenny Dalglish today warned expectant Liverpool fans “We’re expecting a quiet window. The Academy aren’t, but we are”, showing the emphasis of recruitment at a younger age. This comes on the back of Chelsea signing three brothers from Luton Town; two are twins aged 12 and their older brother who is 13, Chelsea paid a ‘five figure sum’ for the youngsters. I wonder when they will make their debuts?
As I watched the world’s top players in the Copa del Rey ‘El Clasico’ last night, I thought to myself ‘these players have been around a while’. I focused on Messi; he made his official Barcelona first team debut on the 16th November 2003 at only 16 years and 145 days old. Messi, like Rooney, is a teenage prodigy that has gone on to fulfil his potential…just about . As I looked around the Barcelona team the question that crossed my mind is how many games they have all played?
Lionel Messi has played competitively for Barcelona C, B and first team and has already racked up 330 games and 224 goals for professional Barcelona sides. Throw on top of that the 66 games he has played for Argentina from under-20 level to full squad and you have a player that has played 396 in his professional career in total at only 24-years-old. I thought that Messi, at this rate, will easily make over a 1000 appearances.
The ‘1000 club’ is an exclusive club that very few players join. The most famous member is Pele, who made 1120 appearances for Santos scoring 1033 goals, whilst playing another 107 games for the New York Cosmos and 92 games for Brazil according to records. This gives Pele 1319 recorded career appearances in a career that last from the age of 16 to 37; 21 years in total if you struggle with your maths. If we discount Pele’s first year (as records are poor) this gives the legend a 20-season career, averaging 65 games a season for club and country.
If we average Messi’s career in the same way, forgetting his first season as it wasn’t a full season and only counting games he played for the full Argentina side, he averages 54 games a season. If Messi has a career similar to that of Pele’s, and it lasts until he is 37, over a 19-year career (we lost a year as was a half season) I can forecast he will play 1032 career games for club and country, an extraordinary achievement, especially when you consider how many goals he scores also.
To put this into perspective, the current top five Premier League appearances are as follows:
1) Ryan Giggs – 585
2) David James – 573
3) Gary Speed – 535
4) Frank Lampard – 509
5) Sol Campbell – 504
Take Ryan Giggs, he has been around forever, but hasn’t yet made the 1000 club having played 959 times for club and country, but he may achieve it. The rest are a long way away and probably will not achieve the feat. In England only two outfield players have ever joined the ‘1000 club’; Preston and Burnley legend Graham Alexander and former Stoke City and West Brom player Tom Ford. The other players in the English game to have achieved it are goalkeepers Peter Shilton and Pat Jennings. Abroad, only legends like Paolo Maldini and Javier Zanetti have qualified, making it the most exclusive club in world football.
Goalkeepers can probably hack it better and they have a career that could last in to their 40’s, but generally they get their chance at a older age. We now not only have keepers like Iker Casillas, Victor Valdes and Joe Hart winging their way towards the 1000 club, we have players like Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Sergio Ramos, Cesc Fabregas, Wayne Rooney, Theo Walcott, James Milner and Sergio Aguero heading towards the achievement like freight trains. Players like Thierry Henry, Ryan Giggs and Frank Lampard MIGHT achieve it by the end of their careers, but other Premier League stalwarts like Steven Gerrard, Jamie Carragher, David Beckham and Paul Scholes won’t.
We have new talented players worldwide that are emerging younger than ever before, the likes of Mario Gotze, Neymar, Phil Jones, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Connor Wickham, Emmanuel Frimpong, Josh McEachran, Christian Eriksen and Kyle Walker to name but a few. Other exciting prospects that we have heard about at only 15 or 16-years-old are waiting in the wings, like Liverpool pair Raheem Sterling and Jordan Ibe.
All these players, and no doubt countless others, have started a career in football at such a young age and could easily make the 1000 club if their body holds out. There could have been more, for example, John Bostock at Spurs is a prime example, he would have been on track for the 1000 had his career progressed better since leaving Crystal Palace. Think about all the talk of Jack Wilshere burning out – that is a short term view, he has to be strong if he is to have a full career nowadays, burn out almost isn’t even an option.
We have seen Wilshere miss a lot of football already through injury, how much can these young players bodies take?
You used to have to earn your place at the head table, earn the respect of teammates, learn the ropes at a club before you got your shot in your early 20’s. At no other time in football history has the term ‘if you’re good enough, you’re old enough’ rang so true. The coaching nowadays is second-to-none, the focus on technique and skill has produced a new generation of ‘ballers’ who crave receiving the ball, the emphasis on conditioning and fitness has never been so effective or scientific.
It may turn out that the ’1000 club’ is a poisoned accolade, it may mean careers now finish at 33 rather than 37 and players peak at 25 instead of 28 or 29. Footballers could be crippled by their 40/50’s. Mentally this could have huge consequences. Football has changed dramatically both on and off the pitch and only time will tell if the intensity can continue and modern day players can last the distance and join the exclusive club.