With almost 30% of the players in the squads of the 16 countries over the age of 30, it is fitting that a older generation of players will take centre stage in countries (Austria and Switzerland) where the population themselves are ageing. Cynics may speak of creaking legs and an inability to reach the physical demands of a international tournament but experience is vital to success (just ask Lippi and his Italy side about Germany 2006).
The need of experience will come in abundance for sides such as the Dutch, with the 37 year old Edwin Van Der Sar in goal to sweep up behind a defence perceived as vulnerable in comparison to their rivals with Joris Mathijsen and Johnny Heitinga supported by either the 34 year old Wilfred Bouma and another veteran Gio van Bronckhorst, who isn’t exactly young either. Despite a two man defensive shield in midfield, the defence will be a worry, with the razor-sharp forward lines of the two World Cup finalists threatening to once more cause the Oranje to underachieve at a major tournament. The goals of Ruud van Nistlerooy (31 yrs) will be the key in a mouth-watering attacking line up.
In a similar manner the Germans, favourites once more, are supported by new Stuttgart keeper and Arsenal cult hero Jens Lehmann (38), typically has caused controversy in criticising the new Euro 2008 ball. Ever the consummate professional, Lehmann played superbly behind an inexperienced and slow back-line in 2006, yet with two years passed, he can focus on what will be his final international tournament. Up front Oliver Neuville, partial to the odd cigarette, again makes the cut at 35 years, having fired in 15 goals to help promote Borussia Mönchengladbach. His know-how will be useful in the German camp despite a potential lack of playing time with Mario Gomez, Podolski and Klose being the main competitors for two starting spots.
The winners of the 2006 World Cup, Italy, showed strength in the face of adversity following the Calciopoli scandal and subsequent point deductions and relegations, and this battle hardened squad will need all their grit and determination to qualify from the toughest group in the tournament. Despite having the oldest average age (29.57 yrs) of all 16 teams, Roberto Donadoni’s side will miss their 35 year old captain Cannavaro, who suffered ankle ligament damage but with veteran AC Milan players (Pirlo, Gattuso and Ambrosini) forming the hub of the midfield, they will be hoping a poor club season will not lead into their international form. Trequartista Alessandro Del Piero was dropped after a poor international performance last autumn in a scoreless draw with France, where he played in a wide midfield role. With this disappointing performance and contract talks frustrating, it appeared his international career and Juventus stay could have ended. But the 33 year old eventually won a new deal and finished as the Capocannoniere with an impressive 21 goals in Serie A.
Fellow World Cup finalists France have the great Lilian Thuram, at the grand old age of 36, marshalling the defence with William Gallas. His 139 caps make him them highest capped player in French history, surpassing Desailly’s 116. In front of him Claude ‘rarely passed the ball more than three metres’ Makelele will play the role that has been named after him. His talents were ignored by the ‘Galáctico obsessed’ ex-Real president Florentino Perez, Makelele like his compatriot Thuram is playing in his final tournament.
Jan Koller is still the focal point to the Czech attack as his injury in the group stages of the 2006 World Cup destroyed their hopes in a group containing Ghana and the USA. Now 35, the FC Nürnberg attacker will be hoping for an injury free tournament to bow out of football on a high, and with Captain Tomas Rosicky out injured, the giant striker’s form will be key to Czech hopes. When Zlatan Ibrahimovic appeared to be placing Swedish hopes solely on his shoulders, Helsingborgs striker Henrik Larsson decided to come out of international retirement and add one last tournament appearance to his glittering career. At 36, one may question his effectiveness, but as a recent loan spell at Manchester United proved, the Celtic hero still has the intelligence to prove a threat to opposition defences.
And finally a word for Ivica Vastic, who at 38, has been called up to the Austrian national squad after two and a half years in the international wilderness. Considering the veteran playmaker is expected to add creativity to what is likely to be one of the worst host nations in Euro history (their own fans petitioned to kick them out of the competition), perhaps he doesn’t need the stress in his twilight years as a player.
This is likely to be the tournament of the old hand, and who knows, perhaps on the day, they will outshine the bright young talents set to line up alongside them.