Why do our bodies age? Perhaps surprisingly, scientists are not entirely sure. Certainly there would be many advantages both to the individual and to the species if the human lifespan could accumulate experiences in one long, linear progression towards perfection. Sadly, the window for the body’s chance at perfection is fleeting. And nowhere is this more evident than on the football pitch.
Why, at only 35, will David Beckham be lucky if he is able to contribute his years of experience to England next summer in South Africa? Why were MLS fans forced to watch Claudio Reyna fall apart in front of our eyes, when he once represented so much that could be good about American soccer? Why do both professionals and week-end warriors have to suffer through the indignities of playing the game through a long, slow, and tormenting decline?
These are the types of questions that are subtly raised—but not addressed—by a new documentary, currently making the rounds of American public television, about “The Golden Age” over-40 league for teams of Latin American immigrants in Corona Park New York (though advertised as starting September 20th, and available online for streaming, my local public television station is first showing it over the air on Tuesday, September 29th).
The documentary actually answers few questions of any sort; in a quick-cut hour exploring the competitive lives of over-40 players and soccer in the Latin American countries they call home, the documentary takes on many different potential story lines without fully exploring any one. But it does offer alluring pictures of the game (variations of which are also available on a pretty web-site for the film), and raises worthwhile questions about what the game means at different points in the world and different points in the life-course.
I suspect the questions raised for me, but not by the filmmakers, in “The Golden Age” are largely a product of where I am in my own relationship with the game: on the psychologically confusing downside of an undistinguished over-30 league career itself designed in some part with the vain hope of briefly reliving a few peak moments I had at age 21. During my aging seasons I find myself too often frustrated with an inability to receive a quite decent pass, too often debating referees for their reasonable judgment call, too often exchanging words with an opponent (or teammate) in a sorry dance of displaced disappointment. But I also often enough find myself in moments that renew my love of the game, and I suspect I am not alone in hoping that those moments mean the game still has something to offer me as I age.
“The Golden Age” is the product of efforts between a rather eclectic group; the television version credits Latino Public Broadcasting as a producer, the narrator is actor Edward James Olmos, the “director/cinematographer” is Scott Duncan (who counts Survivor, along with a number of sports documentaries, among his many works), and the “director/producer” is Phil Tuckett who has had a long career making promotional films for professional American football. On “The Golden Age” web-site it notes that Duncan and Tuckett met while working for NFL films—which goes a long way in explaining the style of the documentary (the web-site also notes in Tuckett’s bio that there is a 90 minute “feature length production” of the Golden Age—suggesting that at around 55 minutes the public television version is significantly abbreviated).
For an American kid such as myself the documentary style of NFL films was a foundational part of my youthful engagement with sports media. NFL films productions combine lush movie-style cinematography, detailed use of slow motion scenes that elongate the intensity of athletic movement, measured baritone narration, and story lines that implicitly validate sports as a crucible for determining merit. As a 16 year-old, the films served to make me feel as though the 1988 season of the Buffalo Bills mattered. But, of course, it didn’t. And while I appreciate Duncan and Tuckett applying their talents to global game, it is not always clear that the soccer they focus on here matters much either.
The premise of “The Golden Age” is that the Corona Park over-40 league is a hidden gem of sporting prowess, a league comprised of “a majority of former professionals” who are heroes in places like Paraguay, Ecuador, Chile, and Columbia. As such, in addition to documenting the league, the film takes short jaunts to Latin America in an effort to explore the global meanings of the game. The claim at the start of the documentary is that while soccer is the world’s most popular game in all corners, “true passion for the game burns brightest in Latin America.” Although that is a claim for which I’d like to see the evidence, it is plausible enough to pass.
While there may well be many formerly great players in the Golden Age league (a New York Times article on the league identifies at least one former New York Cosmos player from Paraguay who was an MVP of the NASL in the good old days), the case for their current sporting prowess is not visually convincing. The players on display in the documentary are better emblems for the aging process than for athletic glory. The receding hairlines, expanding bellies, and gnarled limbs that plague most of us as we age are on vivid display.
Though the documentary tries to steer the viewer’s attention elsewhere, the inevitable and dramatic decline of even the most gifted body is what I found particularly jarring. It brought to mind a familiar but disturbing feeling that I most recently experienced with the discordance of Paul Gascoigne in my memory and his visage at Bobby Robson’s funeral. It would be pleasant if our sporting heroes stayed forever young. But it is more interesting that they do not.
In the season documented by “The Golden Age” most of what I found interesting revolved around how the game goes wrong. We learn about and see players who are hanging on by sheer dint of cortisone, unseemly fighting resulting in team expulsions (explained away with “add team and country loyalties [to competition] and you have a volitale mix”), the seemingly obligatory complaints that the standard of refereeing is not up to the standards of the players (according to the players), the faking of injuries, off-field politics that lead to a late-season boycott of the league, and a general sense that aging and competition create much more in the way of anger than in the way of glory. Though the film tries to argue otherwise, I couldn’t help but feel a bit sad at how we cannot let go.
The scenes from Paraguay are strangely generic, just pretty pictures of what could be rural life anywhere the world. And overall these attempts to use the Golden Age league as a window to the world of Latin American football are too brief and generic to be much more than pretty pictures (though they are very pretty indeed). So there is not much that is distinctive here about the game in Latin America, but there is something distinctive about the concept of aging as part of that game.
Theories of aging
In the film’s effort to validate the sporting prowess of the Golden Age league it presents several players making the argument that as they have aged their experience and savvy has allowed them to compensate for their declining speed and agility. In his dramatic voice-over, Edward James Olmos tells us that for these players “skill and instinct compensate for weakness of the flesh.” If only that were true.
The reality is that as much as we would like to believe that experience and knowledge matter, soccer is very much a game of the flesh. With rare exception, success on the field is primarily about simple physical ability. Lionel Messi is a rich young man because his balance, acceleration, and coordination allow him to do things with the ball that others cannot. Conor Casey leads the MLS in scoring because—relatively speaking—he is big, strong, and fast. The winning teams in my over-30 league almost always have one or two guys that are simply quicker than anyone else.
Even a player like Paolo Maldini, who seemed to temporarily defy aging by relying on tactical sophistication and pedigree, was an undeniable physical specimen. At 39 his body was still made for the game in a way that no left back for the US may ever be. But aging still got the best of him.
The average age of players in top European leagues is 25.8 years, and does not vary much across the different leagues regardless of style of play. As such, that is probably a reasonable estimate of when our body is at its peak capacity—though there is no question that experience and savvy can mean that peak playing ability persists for several additional years. But why does the game become so much more difficult after one’s twenties?
Scientists do know what happens as we age; at a basic level, cells die and organs wear down. But what triggers that process, and why does the decline only become noticeable after young adulthood? It may be partially that our bodies just get over-used, and stop being able to repair themselves. But then why would Maldini have been able to maintain himself after somewhere around 800 appearances for AC Milan and Italy while I suffered dramatically from a mere 60 or so for the Cincinnati Cheetahs, the Mid-Michigan Bucks, and UFC Malawi?
The other explanation is that aging is related to evolutionary adaptations written into our genes. Though it is not entirely clear why this would be the case, the general idea is that from an evolutionary perspective our goal is simply to reproduce our genes. Once we’ve had a chance to do that by having children, it doesn’t much matter what happens to us anymore. Once Cesare Maldini had little Paulo, his body’s work was mostly done and he could move on to manage Paraguay with a clear unconscious.
Ultimately, however, explanations for the aging of the body and the wasting of footballing brilliance on the young remains just theory. One scholar of aging even cautions: “remember to treat theories of aging like you would treat a girlfriend (or boyfriend): love them, spend time with them, respect them, but always be on the lookout for a younger, more exciting theory.” I’m not sure I like that metaphor, so perhaps a soccer metaphor is more appropriate here: treat theories of aging like you would treat your favorite football club: love them, spend time with them, respect them, but always be on the lookout for a better team (particularly if your old club gets bought by greedy American capitalists perceived to have no soul for the game).
The inevitable decline
Overall, although it seems cruel and unnecessary for the body to decline, it does make the game more of a challenge. Teams must constantly re-invent themselves, and players must constantly negotiate the role of the game in relation to their bodies and their lives. This negotiation is on poignant display through the most interesting character in “The Golden Age,” a Paraguayan named Rigaberto Taberas who plays for Defensores Chaco (presumably named for the national stadium in Asunción).
After an amusing scene in which Taberas is identified as the master of the strategic fake injury, he is interviewed in Spanish at a construction site where he works. The interviewer, identified in the film as Carlos Corntinas—a journalist working on a book about soccer and Latin America, genially asks Taberas about how much longer he will be able to keep playing. The question, by prompting the idea of having to stop playing, creates a dramatic silence. Taberas pauses, unable to respond. His eyes quietly well with tears.
Though “The Golden Age” uses a disputed championship game for the over-40 league as its climactic moment, for me the important narrative embedded in the film is about such emotions. The inevitability of aging, along with the meaning the game engenders, creates a sad paradox: when you are old enough to start understanding what it all means, you also must confront your body’s betrayal.
The players in the Golden Age league are not very good anymore, and the movie does not work when it tries to portray them as footballers. But the players in the Golden Age league are engaged in a process that we all must confront, and for me the movie was worthwhile for its somewhat depressing perspective on that process. It reminded me that for all my frustrations with my own aging on the field, for all my impulses to yell and criticize and protest, my challenge now is to accept my limitations gracefully. And in the final appraisal that is similar to how I feel about “The Golden Age” as a film: somewhat limited, but with moments of grace.
Andrew Guest writes weekly for Pitch Invasion. He is an academic social scientist and soccer addict living in Portland, Oregon. Having worked (and played) in Malawi and Angola, he has a particular interest in Africa. He can be contacted at drewguest (at) hotmail.com.