In 1957, Stanley Matthews became the oldest person to play football for England, at the age of 42 years and 104 days. According to Peter Reddy of Aston University, you may be able to break his record, admittedly at a more modest level.
Speaking at the British Science Festival in Birmingham, Reddy explained that while most footballers, amateur as well as professional, give up in their late 30s, there is no reason not to enjoy the beautiful game in your 50s and 60s.
In British Columbia, Canada, there are 120 teams in the Oldtimers Soccer League, while in Boston in the US there are a dozen teams in an over-60s league.
Health benefits of over-50s football
Although there are active women’s veteran football teams, older people’s football is especially valuable for men. Around 22% of men die before the age of 65, compared to 13% of women.
Reddy says that physically active men have a 20-30% reduced risk of premature death and 50% less chronic disease. But by the age of 55-64, only 32% of men say that they take the recommended half-hour of strenuous exercise five times a week – and such self-reporting is famously optimistic.
Football is one answer to this puzzle. Older people who play have more muscle, harder bones, better cardiovascular systems and more jumping height and strength. This last applies especially to women. They also have lower heart rate and blood pressure, less fat and better oxygen absorption, and their leg bones have more mineral content, which for women reduces the risk of osteoporosis.
Football exercises the mind
The psychological benefits of football are as important as the physiological ones. Reddy explains: "A study done among older men playing football in Dublin shows that they have high levels of what we term 'flow,' which really means psychological reward and satisfaction. They see it as fun and rewarding. Interestingly, they report that the level of stress and exertion involved is comparatively low, even though measurements show that they are working hard."
The reason, he thinks, is that football requires continuous, distracting thought, whereas running, cycling or going to the gym focus attention on one’s own body. "With football, there is something to take your mind off what is happening. In tennis, there is all the stress of the double fault or the poor backhand."
The Dublin research also shows that older men from poorer households have a lot to gain from playing football. "It gives them membership of a group, and provides them with knowledge that they can pass on to others," Reddy points out. "This can promote long-term enthusiasm for exercise."
Overcoming the obstacles
Of course, there are obstacles in the way of mass football for older people. It gets far less attention than the provision of football for children.
Even if keen local organisers make it feasible for older age groups, there is still the fear of injury, and, perhaps worse, of ridicule. But more important than these, says Reddy, is the atmosphere in which football is played in the UK - "blood and thunder, with high levels of physical competition."
One answer to these issues is technology. New 'third generation' Astroturf is far gentler on the knees and the lower body in general than older types, or grass. In addition, experts agree that older people operate better in five- or six-a-side football, on a smaller pitch. This type of game, now rebranded Futsal for Salon Football, is being pushed for people of all ages, and around the world, by the international governing body FIFA.
Set the rules and take it easy
One key to successful football for older people is to keep it informal. The players have other commitments and prefer a weekend festival, or competition, to the hard slog of a league season. The games can be drop-in, and they can be more or less age-limited as the participants agree. They can even be mixed-gender provided there are some rules about contact. Or things can be made more formal and competitive, with age ranges and skill levels specified. Despite this informality, says Reddy, older footballers often seek extra training. "Because they play in a slower and more thoughtful way, they realise that they have a lot to learn."
In addition, it is important for older people not to play the game as they might see it on Match of the Day. Football is very adaptable, and can be played at any level of skill and aggression. Older players agree to play the game in a more relaxed way. There are still injuries and the odd red card, but they are a comparative rarity.
An example of what Reddy has in mind was the Third Universities Masters World Cup. Held at Aston University in the summer, at the same time as the more prominent World Cup in South Africa, it featured a dozen over-45s teams from universities around the world. Incredibly, the Germans won.
Walking football has become increasingly popular and is suitable for people who may have mobility problems which stop them playing faster paced games. Contact your local sports centre to find out if they are offering this service. Find a walking football team in your area at www.walkingfootballunited.co.uk.
Find a football club to join
Try these sites to search for a football club that is right for you:
UK Football Finder
The Football Association
Walking Football United