“Even if I need a walking frame to help me, I’ll keep on playing football,” joked a then 38-year-old Stanley Matthews after brilliantly inspiring Blackpool to victory in the 1953 FA Cup final. It was no idle threat: indeed, the winger won the maiden Ballon d’Or aged 41, made his last England appearance as a 42-year-old and played his last game in the English top flight at 50!
Eventually, while representing an England veterans XI against their Brazilian counterparts as a 70-year-old in 1985 – the other No7 on the field that day, Jairzinho, was almost 30 years Matthews’ junior! – ‘The Wizard of the Dribble’ sustained a career-ending cartilage injury. “It was a promising career cut tragically short,” he later quipped.
It was not Matthews’ first trip to Brazil. Even before he hung up his boots, he was spending every close-season doing unpaid coaching for poor kids in South Africa. In Soweto in 1975, he ignored apartheid and formed a team for black schoolboys, who revealed it was their dream to visit Brazil. So Matthew graciously arranged sponsorship and the kids flew to Rio de Janeiro, met the legendary Zico and had the time of their lives.
It’s safe to say that Matthews enjoyed that trip to Brazil more than he did the later one – not only did sustain the aforementioned injury, but the English veterans lost 6-1. But the fact that a 70-year-old was flashing his trademark skills and smiling was indicative that you’re never too old to play football.
That message has been taken on by the women in the above picture, taken in Soweto. They are all grandmothers and, as football fever gripped South Africa in the run-up to the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, they began enjoying regular kickabouts.
Sir Stanley, one of Soweto’s favourite adopted sons who passed away in 2000, would be proud!