x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Afterlife for yesterday's men of football

There are only winners at the end of a football game between veterans. The players are rewarded and the crowds love it. Andy Mitten reports from one such match in Madrid.

Real Madrid veterans have filled a niche in what has become an annual affair against retired players of other European clubs.
Real Madrid veterans have filled a niche in what has become an annual affair against retired players of other European clubs.

The Real Madrid legends such as Luis Figo, Ivan Helguera, Roberto Carlos and Zinedine Zidane showered and made their way through a media mixed zone and towards the post-match reception.

"We never got to do this when we played Manchester United in the Champions League," Helguera says. "We would shake hands and then that was it. We'd read about these great players like Giggs, Keane and Cole and then we'd play against them, but we hardly spoke to them because we were taken out of the stadium and back on to a plane straight after the game. Now we can reminisce."

Though they had just lost 3-2 to a Real veterans side in front of 65,000 at the Bernabeu on a warm June evening, the Manchester United veterans were keen to talk, too. They had played well and the night had been a success, with tickets kept at just €5 (Dh23) to encourage families who might not otherwise be able to afford to see a game at football's grandest stadium. Prices for Real Madrid first-team games average more than 10 times that.

Real's veterans have filled a niche in what has become an annual game against the veterans of other top European sides. AC Milan and Bayern Munich had played in previous years, with all proceeds going to the club's nominated African charity. The United game was such a success that a return leg is planned for Old Trafford next season. The players cannot wait.

United's Quiton Fortune was like an excited schoolboy when he said: "Did you see Zidane? Wow! The way he moves, the way he controls the ball. You can't get the ball off him."

Fortune, who speaks fluent Spanish after his spell in Spain, was nervous before the game because of an errant tackle committed on Zidane nine years ago. He had not been given a chance to apologise then. "I apologised and Zidane laughed," said the South African. "I think he's had other people try to chop him before."

As Ronny Johnsen talked about realising a lifetime dream by playing at the Bernabeu and The National's columnist Andrew Cole showed how seriously the games are taken by cursing the referee, Fortune, a fit 35, cut a more philosophical figure. "You miss all this when you stop," he said.

"You wake up in the morning and miss the competition, the banter among the players in the dressing room. I love football, I love being fit from playing football. My life is not complete without it." He still hopes to return to the game following knee surgery.

Fortune has a unique solution to his predicament - Sir Alex Ferguson lets him train with Manchester United's reserves every day and expects him to pass on advice to younger players, but he is a one-off.

The predicament of a moneyed elite elicits little sympathy, but footballers do not have it easy when they retire.

Some suffer from depression, others turn to drink. Divorce rates rocket as a players struggle to become accustomed to a life as yesterday's men.

Money is an issue, too. Some spend like it is never going to stop when they are playing, but it does stop and it does run out, especially they have been badly advised. Players find out who their friends are, when they retire. And who the hangers-on were, too.

As well as the mental issues, they have to work hard if they want to stay in shape after 20 years of training almost every day. In the past, a lot of players did not kick a ball from the day they retired to the day they died. Some could not because of injuries inflicted during their career. Others became bitter about their departure from the sport they once loved. Maybe there were kick-abouts or one-off charity matches, but not a commercial model.

It is changing. The past decade has seen a rise in tournaments for former players, with matches playing to varying formats in various countries. The game in Madrid was 11-a-side, though six-a-side games are more popular. They often make for a far better spectacle, especially on television.

Steve Black, a director at Masters Football, a British company which has staged tournaments around the world said: "11-a-side football played by former players is boring for television.

"Players still have their competitive edge and skill, but they lose their speed and stamina with age and this slows the game. It doesn't come close to watching the real teams, so six-a-side football is much better. Players can showcase their skills, there are more goals and action. If a player takes his eyes off the ball then there can be a goal within seconds. You can play a team of 21 year olds against 35 year olds at six-a-side and have a great game. You couldn't do that at 11-a-side."

He said that each four-team tournament is concluded in three hours on pitches measuring 60 metres by 30, with games played in quick eight-minute halves.

His company's greatest asset is the enthusiasm of the former players and their competitive spirit.

Of the United players in Madrid, most had just come from two weeks on the road playing a masters six-a-side tournament in Bangkok followed by a similar format at another tournament in Barbados.

"I've been travelling more than when I played," Johnsen said with a smile. "And enjoying it, too. It's only for part of the year and it's something to look forward to."

Judging by the calibre of players who are effectively playing for a free trip and some pocket money, others agree. Many 1990s A-listers were present in the Caribbean with Roberto Di Matteo, the Chelsea manager, seen hugging his phone as he waited for news from Stamford Bridge and Alan Shearer catching up with his old teammates. Dwight Yorke brought along his mate, the cricketer Brian Lara.

"It's a free holiday on a beautiful island, a bit of golf, football and a chance to catch up with former teammates," Yorke said.

The Barbados Tourist Authority and British Airways organised the tournament with the help of the Professional Footballers' Association. Their motive is to boost tourist numbers to their island in the shoulder season.

"Bringing former players over is the next best thing to bringing the current players," said Richard Sealey, the Barbados minister of tourism. "Bringing the first team would be difficult with our timescale and also the cost."

Most veterans' tournaments are not for tourism.

"Masters Football is a made-for-TV product and we can have up to 50 countries taking our product," Black said. "Sponsors fund it because they want to be on television. It's hard and very expensive to get the current teams of Man United or Liverpool to go to and play a friendly. It's easier with former players who are still very well known. Players like Andy Cole or Robbie Fowler have more time, so they are more approachable, too."

That he mentions a former United and Liverpool player is intentional.

"United and Liverpool are by far the biggest draw in Asia," Black said. "Liverpool may have declined, but they're still huge and far bigger than a Man City or Chelsea. We expect those two to grow with their success."

Black has noticed how the old rivalry has shifted between the United and Liverpool players.

"They were initially two different groups who wanted nothing to do with each other. Steve McManaman told me that he'd been brought up in a climate of hate when it came to Man United players. The players never got to know their rivals because they didn't want to and that continued into post-playing career.

"But then it completely changed. We were in countries like Brunei where the players shared one lounge. They had to mingle. It helps that you are dealing with mature people, but they realised they have got far more in common than not. They also have more time and can get out and see some of the cities they are playing in. They couldn't do that when they played professionally because they were holed up in hotels."

United and Liverpool games can draw crowds of 8,000 or 9,000 to indoor arenas in Kuala Lumpur or Bangkok, more than similar games staged in Manchester or Liverpool. Ticket prices are kept low to encourage crowds, but even that did not generate big crowds in the Barbados tournament staged at the prestigious Kensington Oval cricket ground, though television figures have increased.

"Figures for Masters Football have doubled on [British] Sky TV over the past three years," Black said. "They're still quite small, but about twice that of county cricket, which is also shown."

Veterans' football has come a long way in the past decade and many high-profile former professionals are doing all they can to boost its popularity. Whether it can be the enormous success its promoters hope for rests on the global appetite for football increasing and the allure of its biggest names enduring.

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