Are today's young football stars worse than those before them?


IT HAS been a bad World Cup for the old guard. Both Cristiano Ronaldo (aged 33) and Lionel Messi (31), widely regarded as two of the greatest footballers ever, departed the stage early, as Portugal and Argentina were eliminated in the round of 16. According to Simon Gleave of Gracenote Sports, an analytics company, 17 squads arrived at the tournament with an average age of 28 or above, the point at which players in most positions start to decline from their peak ability. None of those countries made it to the semi-finals. The French and English squads that progressed to the final four are both notably youthful, with an average age of 26.

Yet in spite of these juvenile successes, a range of indicators suggest that the wunderkinder of today might be less wonderful than those of previous generations. One common measure of footballers’ value is the Ballon d’Or, an annual prize awarded in December for the world’s best player as voted for by reporters. Though the system is subjective, the wisdom of football’s journalistic crowds implied that both Germany and Italy were producing fewer stars before their recent World Cup catastrophes.

When it comes to age, the verdict from the hacks is clear: things ain’t what they used to be. In the past five years, just 17% of the players who have made it into the annual top 20 were younger than 24 at the start of the calendar year. By contrast, between 2004 and 2008 32% of nominations went to such players, including Messrs Messi and Ronaldo. Today the average Ballon d’Or nominee is 27 years and four months old at the start of the calendar year, compared with 26 years and three months a decade ago.

There are three possible explanations for this trend. The first is that journalists have become less enamoured of youngsters. The second is that medical science has prolonged footballing careers, meaning that yesterday’s upstarts can remain at their peak for longer. The third is that there is a shortage of Messi- and Ronaldo-esque talents on the horizon, as seems to have happened in tennis after the “Big Four” of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray.

21st Club, a football consultancy, has found evidence that supports the third hypothesis. The company has developed a rating system that quantifies a player’s contribution to a team, based on his side’s overall strength, his share of playing time, his position, and his goals and assists. These ratings confirm that most of the world’s best players are indeed the wrong side of 28—and that they have been declining at the same rate as ever. Mr Messi’s annual tally of goals for Barcelona was 12% lower in the past three seasons than in the previous three. Mr Ronaldo’s output has fallen by 18%.

If such deterioration occurs across an entire team, the effects can be severe. Argentina had the oldest squad at the World Cup, with an average age of 29 years and seven months, according to Mr Gleave. 21st Club gave the country a 5% chance of lifting the trophy, which would have risen to 7% if every player had been two years younger. Alas, Argentina has few young prospects to call on. Most of its future hopes rest on Paulo Dybala, a 24-year-old attacker who finished 15th in last year’s Ballon d’Or but played just 22 minutes in Russia.

La Albiceleste, as the national squad is known, is not the only team to have suffered from a recent shortage of young blood. Mr Gleave notes that, after two stable decades, this World Cup has set a new record for the overall average age of players, which has risen by five months to 27 years and 11 months. Omar Chaudhuri, of 21st Club, points out that national coaches left many good footballers behind—about 80 who were significantly better than the average selected player in their position—but just ten of them were younger than 24. The problem is not that wunderkinder are being denied the chance to shine. It is that fewer of them are shining at all.

Fans might think that the opulence of Europe’s elite leagues is to blame, with coaches feeling the pressure to win at all costs, rather than nurturing academy players. Yet the share of minutes played by under-23s has been flat in most domestic competitions during the past decade, says Mr Chaudhuri. Only England’s Premier League has seen a decline, which has not stopped English youngsters from excelling. They won the under-17 and under-20 World Cups last year, and have exceeded expectations at the current tournament.

Among England’s Three Lions, Dele Alli (aged 22), Raheem Sterling (23) and Harry Kane (24) might someday vie for the Ballon d’Or. To do so they will have to get past Kylian Mbappé, a 19-year-old Frenchman who has been his country’s greatest attacking threat. Unfortunately, the early signs suggest that winning the prize in five years’ time will be a less impressive feat than it was five years ago.



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