The World Cup continues to get bigger and better, aging like a fine wine. It’s not just the tournament itself, though, that is maturing, going from a tournament in 1930 where anyone who wanted to participate was invited, and where the European teams traveled by boat, to the current 32-team behemoth that involves years of qualification.
The players themselves, on the best teams on the world stage, are getting older over time. At the first World Cup in Uruguay in 1930, over half of the players among the four group winners were age 24 or younger. None were older than 32. Some of this is to be expected, and mirrors other sports as they move toward increased professionalism, year-round training, and greater tactics and expertise in the sport.
A couple of years ago, I wrote about the maturation of the NFL over time, and used the aging patterns of the league’s stars to show how the league progressed. The theory is this: when it comes to trying to identify points in history where a sport progressed forward in quality, look to the ages. If younger players are able to break through earlier, before they reach peak age and maturity, then they must be an improvement on the previous generation. If older players are able to hold off youngsters, then the sport has matured, and the older players are not at as much of an athletic disadvantage compared to the new players.
If you watch old grainy footage of matches from 1950 compared to today (like the above), you might hardly recognize the sport. Anyone can tell that they are watching vastly different groups of athletes and tacticians. Seeing the smaller advances is harder to discern. While thousands of players have passed through, it’s not hard to play a soccer version of “six degrees of Kevin Bacon” and get back to those times. Using Brazil, for example, you can connect players on this year’s squad to Ronaldo, to Bebeto, who debuted with Brazil in 1985, to Zico, who debuted in 1971 with Brazil, the year Pelé retired from international soccer. Pelé, of course, debuted as a 17 year old in the 1958 World Cup.
Still, we know that the game of soccer has continually progressed. Where were the biggest jumps, and what do the ages of teams show today?
I looked at the top 8 finishers’ rosters in each World Cup since 1950 (I would say quarterfinalists, but there was no such thing in 1950 or 1982). Here’s a summary of the age breakdown at each World Cup for the top 8 teams, color coded with each age bracket. Dark Green represents a World Cup where the number of players in that age group was more than a standard deviation more than the average. Dark Red, similarly, means the number of players in that group was a standard deviation or more less than the average.
What do we see here? On a general trend level, players have gotten older, and the divide really seems to come as we enter the 1982 World Cup. That World Cup was the last one where there were more players age 24 or under than age 29 or older among the quarterfinalists. The four most recent World Cups have had the four highest rates of players over 32 years old.
If we want to look at the progression of the game, look to the sixties. The 1962 and 1966 World Cups are the only two since World War II where the average age of the quarterfinalists was under age 26. The 1958 Brazil World Cup squad, with a young Pelé, was just ahead of the curve.
In almost every World Cup, players ages 25 to 28 have represented the most common group. Three of those groups, though, stand out as golden generations in looking at the numbers. The first was in 1970, when the young players of the sixties, already good enough, emerged in their primes. Ty Duffy recently wrote about the best teams not to appear in a World Cup Final, and the inclusion of two from the 1970 World Cup seems justified.
The next was in 1982, when players like Michel Platini were the stars, and four years later, were still in form (30% of the players in the 1986 Cup were between ages 29 and 32). The final was the 1994 World Cup, where players from that group again made up an inordinate amount of the contributors in the 1998 World Cup.
We may have another like that this year, spearheaded by Lionel Messi. The last World Cup in South Africa had the highest percentage of players age 24 or younger (32%) in quarterfinals since 1978. However, it doesn’t look like a general aging theme but rather a singular generation, as only about 25% of the players among the best teams in 2014 have yet to turn 25 years of age. The older players, meanwhile, continue to thrive in the World Cup more than any point in history.
In looking at the twelve teams with the best odds to win the World Cup (and thus most likely to comprise this year’s quarterfinalists), the average roster age is 27.1 years of age. That would rank behind only the 1998 World Cup, and be tied with the 2006 World Cup for highest average age. Of the twelve favored teams, only four of the European squads in Belgium (25.2), Germany (25.9), England (26.0), and the Netherlands (26.0) have an average age under 26.5, so if those teams get knocked out, the average age of quarterfinalists will climb. It could be the oldest, most experienced World Cup to date among the top finishers–a sign that the World Cup, and the World’s game, has come of age.