In Italy, monuments tend to be rock-solid and immovable, and on the football pitch things are no different. As players like Alessandro Del Piero and Javier Zanetti – both now closer to their 40s than their 30s – continue to demonstrate, advancing years are no barrier to producing top-level performances or blocking burgeoning talents from the starting XI. When the fixture list throws up derbies or proverbial six-pointers, is it really so surprising that many coaches, in search of calm and experienced heads, naturally turn to these evergreen veterans?
FIFA.com takes a look at these old hands, a group of long-standing Serie A servants that give short shrift to the idea of retirement.
The undisputed leader of these seasoned campaigners is 41-year-old Francesco Antonioli, Cesena’s first-choice goalkeeper. With three clean sheets to his name already this season, the former Roma player’s displays show no sign of diminishing, following in the footsteps of the legendary Dino Zoff, whose career between the sticks spanned 22 years, the highlight of which was captaining his country to the FIFA World Cup™ in 1982 at the ripe old age of 40.
Outfield players are less likely than keepers to still be performing in the top flight in their late 30s, but Inter Milan’s 37-year-old wingback-cum-midfielder Javier Zanetti is one of the exceptions. An irrepressible captain of the current Italian and European champions, the Argentinian still appears raring to go at the end of matches, despite spending the previous 90 minutes indulging in non-stop chasing, tackling and counter-attacking.
Zanetti's durability at domestic and international level is astonishing; he boasts nearly 700 appearances for the Nerazzurri and no fewer than 137 international caps, and recently became the oldest-ever goalscorer in the UEFA Champions League. Overlooked by Diego Maradona in the run-up to South Africa 2010, he was then recalled in September to the Argentina side by new coach Sergio Batista for a friendly against world champions Spain, a match in which he confirmed that he had lost absolutely nothing of his skill, leadership qualities and industry.
Seventeen years on from making his league debut for Juventus in September 1993, Alessandro Del Piero continues to impress. The talented forward, who will turn 36 in November, could never be categorised as physically imposing, but it is rather his exceptional technique and control that have placed him among the greatest players in Italian football history.
One of just five players to have scored over 300 career goals (308), the others being Filippo Inzaghi (313), Roberto Baggio (319), Giuseppe Meazza (338) and Silvio Piola (364), this season he reached yet another milestone by drawing level with Giampiero Boniperti’s record of 178 Serie A goals for Juventus. “I’m pleased to be in the company of such a celebrated player," enthused Del Piero after he came off the bench to score the momentous goal against Lecce. "This record really has given me a boost. I’m so excited, I feel like I’m a little boy again.”
Filippo Inzaghi, who is a year older than Del Piero, could be forgiven for wishing to bring his unrelenting 19-season goal quest to a gentle conclusion. However, the AC Milan striker, who has won all there is to win with club and country, is clearly not finished yet, managing to find the back of the net twice in three appearances this season, despite the abundant attacking options at the disposal of Milan coach Massimiliano Allegri.
Exhibiting the same desire as a youth player on the fringes of the first team, the former Juventus star has even begun to demand more playing time at the San Siro. “I remember all of my goals, just as if they were sons of mine,” he claimed recently, and no observer of the Italian game would bet against him extending his family.
The career of 34-year-old Marco Di Vaio offers an interesting paradox when analysing Serie A stalwarts because, like a fine Italian wine, the Rome-born striker seems to actually improve with age. Since signing for Bologna in 2008, he has registered a remarkable 41 goals in 76 league matches, representing 44 per cent of the entire team's total. And, as Di Vaio’s recent statement to the press proves, he sees no reason why he cannot continue adding to his tally: “I haven’t set myself any age limit. I feel perfectly fine.”
At 33, Antonio Di Natale has enjoyed a similar sort of Indian summer at Udinese, scoring 86 times in 200 Serie A encounters since 2004 and earning international recognition in the process.
While AC Milan have attempted to reduce the average age of the club’s squad, the talented triumvirate of Alessandro Nesta, Clarence Seedorf (both 34) and Gennaro Gattuso (32) have proved to be untouchable. Having overcome serious injuries numerous times, the elegant Nesta has always managed to come back even stronger than before, adept at using his vast defensive experience to compensate for a certain lack of pace. And the tremendous form of the formidable midfield pairing of Gattuso, the team’s tireless, hard-tackling captain, and the influential Seedorf, has been key to the Rossoneri’s excellent start to the season.
A final tried-and-trusted professional worth a mention is Milan right-back Massimo Oddo, now 34, who celebrated his first appearance of the season in style on Monday night. Oddo came off the bench to set up both goals in his side’s important 2-1 win away to Napoli, proving again how invaluable experience can be in high-pressure situations.
“You’ll have noticed that I’m not finished yet,” said Oddo after the win. For the next generation of young players waiting in the wings, some of whom were not even born by the time Zanetti and Co were already established first-team players, the message is clear: wait your turn, there is life in the old guard yet.