Most footballers hang up their cleats once they’ve made it to their mid-30s, while others prove to be nothing short of evergreen, continuing their playing days until their 40s and continually playing at a high level and defying the laws of age in the process. On this top 10 list, we’ll be counting down the top 10 footballers who have done the latter and excelled in their circumstances.
Some are among the greatest players to have ever strapped on a pair of cleats, while others are somewhat less-respected but have built up quite a reputation regardless. Some – like Ryan Giggs (although he’s technically a player-manager and may retire after this season) – are still active in football today. Regardless, they have established themselves as footballing icons not least thanks to how competitive they’ve been able to keep playing for their age.
Though no players on this list have actually won a World Cup trophy – in fact, Javier Zanetti was cruelly excluded from Argentina’s World Cup squads in 2006 and 2010 despite playing extremely well for his age – this list is not necessarily based on their trophies won, but rather how they’ve been able to keep playing at the highest level in football for such a long time.
One player on this list is the oldest footballer to ever score in a World Cup finals match, another had a title of “Sir” attached to his name, and another is an Italian goalkeeper who captained his national team all the way to the World Cup trophy at age 40. No matter how you slice it, it’s quite an accomplishment for a footballer to keep making a name for himself at an age where most of his peers have retired. Without further ado, here are the top 10 men who have done just that.
10 Gordon Strachan
Arguably one of the greatest Scottish players of all time, Gordon Strachan retired at age 40 after playing three seasons with Coventry City at the very twilight of his career. Probably best known in the ‘80s for his days with Aberdeen in Scotland as well as with Manchester United, Strachan won two Scottish league titles and one European Super Cup with the former, as well as one FA Cup with the latter. The midfielder scored 138 goals over the course of his 25-year career in Scotland and England before retiring and going on to a successful managerial career with Southampton, Celtic and currently the Scottish national team.
9 Sir Stanley Matthews
It’s rare for any English footballer to receive knighthood, period. Even rarer is for an English footballer to be knighted while their playing career is still active. For Sir Stanley Matthews, the latter is exactly what happened. Retiring from his playing days at age 40 with Stoke City in 1965, Matthews left the game just before his native England won their first and only World Cup the following year, but his reputation is sealed: he was inducted into the English Football Hall of Fame, won an FA Cup with Blackpool in 1953, and played in the 1950 and 1954 World Cups with England. The late, great Sir Stanley certainly was the “Wizard of the Dribble”.
8 Roger Milla
How many players can say they’ve scored goals in the World Cup at the age of 42? Roger Milla, that’s who. In 1990, Milla – 38 at the time – scored four goals in helping Cameroon reach the quarterfinals of that year’s World Cup and become the first African nation to do so. The man who celebrated goals by dancing at the corner flag also has bragging rights of being one of the FIFA 100 as selected by Pelé. Scoring a goal against Russia at the 1994 World Cup in the United States saw him make history by setting the record again for oldest goalscorer at a World Cup finals tournament.
7 Teddy Sheringham
By playing for 24 years and retiring at 42, Teddy Sheringham is arguably one of the most evergreen players in English football history. Sheringham retired with Colchester United, but established himself first with Millwall, Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United, gaining 51 caps and 11 goals for his country in the process. Although he was a bit of a late bloomer to begin with – for example, he didn’t get his first England cap until he was 27 – Sheringham kept consistently getting double digit goal tallies into his 30s, case in point his 15 goal season at age 35 with Manchester United in 2000-01.
6 Peter Shilton
He still holds the record for most caps gained by any England player in history (as well as the most competitive appearances by any footballer period), but Peter Shilton continuing his playing days until age 47 and maintaining his place with England until age 40 probably gave him an advantage there. Not that it’s undeserved, though: he took the Three Lions to fourth place at the 1990 World Cup in Italy, and helped Leicester City and Nottingham Forest win multiple titles in the ‘70s. He was also a mainstay between the sticks for England as he made it to three World Cups.
5 Alessandro Costacurta
As one quarter of one of the greatest defenses in both the Serie A and European football during the ‘90s with AC Milan, Alessandro Costacurta established himself as a top-notch central defender in helping the Rossoneri win seven Serie A titles and five European Cup/Champions League titles. Although his career was starting to finally dwindle by the time he hung up his cleats, Costacurta retired at age 41 after the 2006-07 season with 458 total league appearances for Milan and 59 appearances for the Italian national team under his belt. He also became the oldest player to play a Champions League match at age 40 that same season.
4 Javier Zanetti
The defender known as El Tractor just recently announced his retirement from football at age 40, but he’s made a name for himself as a longtime Inter captain that will be hard for his successor to match. The versatile right back made 856 total appearances for the Milan giants, helping them win five scudetti and one Champions League title, which came in the 2009-10 season. Zanetti also made 145 appearances for Argentina’s national team, making their squad for the 1998 and 2002 World Cups, but was shockingly omitted from the 2006 and 2010 tournaments. Regardless, Zanetti will still go down as a legend for both Argentina and Inter.
3 Dino Zoff
One of the greatest goalkeepers to ever play the game, Dino Zoff is also one of the most age-defying players to ever play at a high level as well. Gaining 112 caps for the Azzurri throughout his international career, Zoff helped Italy triumph at the 1982 World Cup in Spain, captaining the Italian national team at the age of 40. Initially rejected by a number of teams as a youngster due to being too short, Zoff made up for it handsomely throughout his professional career, particularly during his 11 years at Juventus during the latter half of his playing days.
2 Ryan Giggs
Although retirement after this season is a distinct possibility for Ryan Giggs – he took a player-manager role after David Moyes was sacked following 10 months in charge at Manchester United – he will still go down as arguably one of the most accomplished players in Premier League history. The Welshman has spent his entire club career at Old Trafford, and his personal achievements are simply staggering: 13 Premier League titles, four FA Cup titles, two Champions League titles, and even GQ Sportsman of the Year. Whether or not he keeps playing after this season is uncertain, but the 40-year-old has very little left to prove.
1 Paolo Maldini
He’s unquestionably one of the greatest defenders in football history, and his retirement at age 41 – not to mention his number three being retired by AC Milan – emphasizes his importance to the Rossoneri, who he spent his entire club career with. Il Capitano also played 126 times with the Italian national team, going to four World Cups including the one Italy hosted in 1990. Maldini also helped Milan win the Serie A title seven times, win the European Cup/Champions League five times, and was one of the FIFA 100 before he had even finished his playing days. He was as evergreen as they come, and Maldini’s reputation speaks for itself.