“My dad was a coach here during the war,” says Ove Jørgensen. “That’s when I started.” Seven decades later, Jørgensen still trains once a week at the Himmelev-Veddelev Boldklub, in Roskilde, Denmark. At 77, he is the oldest player on his seven-a-side team. The youngest is 63, five years over the minimum age of 58 for players in the local Oldmasters league. As younger men, several of Jørgensen’s teammates played for FC Roskilde in the Danish first division; these days, one has a bad knee, another had a hip replacement, and most have to cope with arthritis. “We have become slower,” says Jørgensen. “My brain knows what to do, but I’m not as fast as I once was. It’s sort of like, ‘OK, you should have been over there instead of standing here.’”
In a typical professional match, a player runs over 10 kilometers, sprints more than 800 meters, and changes direction about every five seconds. It’s not unusual for teams to play three games a week, leaving footballers’ bodies little chance to recover between fixtures. As a consequence, football careers are on average only eight years long, and almost half are ended by injury. Physically, players should peak between 27 and 32, but many are worn out well before their 30th birthday. Arsène Wenger, manager of Arsenal in London, UK, won’t contract midfielders and forwards over 32 for longer than a year at a time.
Leaving the highly structured, highly paid, high-status world of professional football can be disastrous: within one year of their final match, one in three English players get divorced, and within five years, 40 percent go bankrupt, according to UK charity Xpro. Almost a third of retired footballers turn to drink, found a 2014 study by the international footballers’ union FIFPro, whose chief medical officer, Vincent Gouttebarge blames their alcoholism on depression triggered by life without their teammates. Back in Roskilde, the retired footballers at Himmelev-Veddelev stay sane by playing until they drop. “The social camaraderie. That’s what it’s all about,” says Jørgensen. “We care about each other. We ask: ‘What is he doing now? Why isn’t he playing? Is he dead?’”
Head a football three to four times a day and you’ll traumatize your brain; head it five times a day, and you’ll start forgetting things, according to a 2013 study of 37 long-term soccer players by the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, New York, USA.
Hamstring traumas are the most common type of injury in elite footballers. Faced with pain in his hamstring in 2009, Scottish striker Peter MacDonald turned to German doctor Hans-Wilhelm Müller-Wohlfahrt, aka “Healing Hans,” who prescribed 50 injections of goat’s blood to loosen it.
In 2013, Real Madrid insured Cristiano Ronaldo’s legs for €103 million (US$150 million), twice its rival club Barcelona’s €51 million ($70.5 million) valuation of the legs of Lionel Messi. Marketing matters, too: in 2006, Real Madrid insured David Beckham’s face for almost €40 million ($55 million).
The physical demands of goal celebrations can take their toll, as British Sunday league footballer Dennis Swale discovered in 2013. Imitating German striker Jürgen Klinsmann’s celebratory chest-first slide across the turf, Swale’s head lodged in the grass, crushing four of his vertebrae.