London: It wasn’t so long ago that when a professional footballer approached the age of 30 it was time to start looking for a suitable sports shop to see him through to his pension.
But now, while million-pound contracts mean that players need never have to worry about their long-term financial security, huge advances in fitness mean that they are taking longer and longer to hang up their boots.
Leading the way in the premier league is Gianfranco Zola, who at 36 is enjoying such a good season that he says he wants to play for another year.
The diminutive Italian, who had planned to retire at the end of the current campaign, is at the top of his game and is even an early contender for the Footballer of the Year award.
If that prestigious trophy, decided by the country’s soccer journalists, returned to its roots where sportsmanship was as important as performance, Zola would be the obvious winner.
Universally popular not only for his special talent but for his obvious and infectious love of the game, Zola is one of the few modern players to transcend club loyalties.
Who else, after setting up the first two goals in a virtuoso display in Chelsea’s 4-1 midweek League Cup thrashing of Everton, would be applauded off the pitch by the fans of the losing team'
That was the honour accorded the Italian when he departed the action on the hour on Wednesday, after his pinpoint passes had set up Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink and Emmanuel Petit for the first two goals.
He also displayed his full range of fantastic control and ball retention, looking lean and fit. “I’m surprising myself,” he said after the match. “I run up and down as much as anybody else and so age is really relative.
“As long as you enjoy playing then age doesn’t matter. When you play like this and you enjoy it so much it makes you think about continuing.”
It is not a situation he would have envisaged this time last year, when he had been reduced to a regular place on the bench as Hasselbaink and Eidur Gudjohnsen held a firm grip on the two strike roles.
Zola decided to do something about it, embarking on a fierce solo training regime almost as soon as the season ended. It paid off immediately, the Italian scoring 10 goals in pre-season friendlies and forcing manager Claudio Ranieri to include him in the starting line-up for the new Premier League campaign.
“I am really pleased with how I am playing at 36 and I hope I can play like this when I am 37,” he said when asked how long he could go on. “But don’t put pressure on me, I like to take things step by step.”