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Friday, April 16, 2010
Ageless wonders

By Leander Schaerlaeckens

Soccer, they say, is a young man's game. Yet some players who were old enough to father some of their teammates have made a significant impact on World Cup history. Here are the five best World Cup performances by soccer's elder statesmen. Not surprisingly, most of them came from goalkeepers, a position in which players can last longer and peak at a later age.

5. Cafu, 2006
Some players don't just excel at their position; they reinvent it. After becoming the first to make opponents worry about how to cover an opponent's defender, Brazil right back Cafu had put together a long and decorated career by the time the 2006 tournament rolled around. He already had played in three straight World Cup finals from 1994 to 2002 -- winning two and becoming the first to play in three consecutive finals.

By 2006, Cafu was 36 but still going strong, performing well for AC Milan in Italy and in his 16th year with the Brazilian national team, on his way to logging a record 142 caps. Cafu, whose real name is Marcos Evangelista de Moraes, was nicknamed after Cafuringa, a 1970s Brazilian forward known for his blinding speed along the right side of the field.

Also nicknamed "Il Pendolino" -- the commuter -- in Italy for his knack for ferrying up and down the flank, Cafu captained an underwhelming Brazil side that would strand in the quarterfinals. In spite of criticism surrounding his inclusion in the squad, Cafu would anchor his team in four of its five games, being rested only in the final game of the first round, when qualification already had been cemented.

4. Lev Yashin, 1966
The best goalkeeper who ever lived, according to many, Lev Yashin was still at it at age 36 in an era in which athletes didn't age as well as they do today. In 1966, the Soviet Union's backstop, who spent his entire 22-year career -- in which he notched shutouts in more than half of his games -- with Dynamo Moscow, helped the motherland gain a fourth place at the World Cup, literally saving the day in, among others, the quarterfinals against Hungary, when an impossible save secured the win.

Known for his sportsmanship, athleticism and exceptional elegance, Yashin also might have been one of the best penalty-stoppers ever seen. He is said to have stopped some 150 penalties in competitive games. His secret? A swig of liquor and a cigarette beforehand, according to the man after whom the trophy for each World Cup's best goalie would be named and who pioneered the participation of the goalkeeper in the run of play, organizing the defense, punching the ball and throwing it out for a counterattack.

His philosophy of keeping the ball out at all cost is best narrated by his own philosophical words: "What kind of goalkeeper is the one who is not tormented by the goal he has allowed? He must be tormented! And if he is calm, that means the end. No matter what he had in the past, he has no future."

3. Peter Shilton, 1990
Goalkeeper Peter Shilton had no intention of going out on anything but a high when his England squad worked its way through qualifiers for the 1990 World Cup. Superb in several games, Shilton wouldn't concede a single goal. While already past 40 and 24 years into his professional career, his form wouldn't be any worse during the tournament. He made several key saves in a flattered 1-0 group stage win over Egypt and a 1-0 second-round win against Belgium, and kept Cameroon at bay with an intrepid performance in a 3-2 quarterfinal victory.

England's run to the semifinals, where it would be eliminated on penalties by West Germany, had everything to do with Shilton's showing, which also made him the oldest man to captain a team at a World Cup.

While Shilton didn't make his World Cup debut until he was 32, he played in three editions, with the 1990 tournament bookending his England career after a record 125 appearances -- making only one mistake, by his own count. His professional career actually lasted seven more years and finally concluded in 1997, after a record 1,005 English league games -- in which he scored one goal on an 80-yard clearance -- over a span of 30 years.

Thanks in part to his performance in '90, Shilton set the record for most World Cup shutouts at 10, which has since been tied by France's Fabien Barthez.

2. Roger Milla, 1990
Going into the 1990 World Cup, Cameroon striker Roger Milla's age was officially listed at 38. Some suspected he was much older, since he'd been around for longer than anybody seemingly could remember, and it was improbable that his age was really 13 when he made his senior debut for Éclair de Douala in 1965, as was claimed. Milla, whose actual name was Albert Roger Mooh Miller, had retired in 1987 and was playing for a tiny team on the island of Réunion. A phone call from the Cameroonian president persuaded him to join the '90 effort.

As it turned out, Milla would be crucial in Cameroon becoming the first African nation to reach the quarterfinals of a World Cup (a feat replicated only by Senegal in 2002). Coming on during second halves as Cameroon's supersub, the lightning-quick Milla never failed to infuse his team's attacks with venom. Against Romania, for example, he didn't come on until the 58th minute -- an early appearance by his standards -- allegedly by presidential decree, but scored both goals in the 2-1 win. Facing Colombia in the second round, Milla again entered the fray some 10 minutes after the half and went on to score two poachers' efforts in extra time for another 2-1 victory. In Cameroon's eventual 3-2 ouster versus the English in the quarterfinals, Milla won his team a penalty and gave an assist to mastermind both of his country's goals.

Amazingly, Milla would return for the 1994 World Cup and even manage to score a goal, making him the oldest World Cup goal scorer at 42 years of age. One of Milla's teammates in 1994 was Rigobert Song, who had yet to turn 18 when the tournament started, making him a full 24 years younger than Milla. Milla would play until he was 45 -- if he wasn't really older.

1. Dino Zoff, 1982
So legendary Italy goalie Dino Zoff was 40 years old at the 1982 tournament in Spain. What of it? It didn't stop him from excelling throughout the tournament, culminating in an unreal showing against Brazil in the second group round, and captaining an Italy team to the World Cup after it beat West Germany 3-1 in the final. This made him the oldest player to play in a World Cup final -- not to mention hoist the trophy.

Remarkably reserved and humble, Zoff's steady hands manifested in an ability to stay cool in the most frantic of circumstances, serving him and his team extraordinarily well in Spain. To illustrate: After his epic one-man defeat of Brazil, he spoke not a word; all he did was kiss his manager on the cheek.

Like Milla, Zoff had a teammate who was less than half his age. One of the defenders in front of him, Giuseppe Bergomi -- who worshipped Zoff -- was just 18 years old, making him almost 22 years younger.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer writer for He can be reached at