There’s no such thing as hanging up your boots in football these days. Whatever your age, there’s an opportunity to keep kicking a ball all over the country, particularly with the growth of walking football, a slower-paced but equally entertaining version of the beautiful game, open to anyone over 50.
In 1957, Stanley Matthews became the oldest person to play football for England, at the age of 42 years and 104 days. More recently, grandfather-of-six Ezzeldin Bahader became the oldest professional football player in the world at the age of 74 when he signed up with Egyptian third division team 6th October, playing the two matches required to qualify for the Guinness World Records shortly before his 75th birthday.
"I’ve always longed to play for a big club but it remained just a dream," Ezzeldin Bahader tells Fifa, "so I began to pursue another goal when I found out that the oldest person to play professionally was a 53-year-old striker [Kazuyoshi Miura from Japan]. Seeing the enormous age gap between me and him, I decided to give it a try. At first, I didn't tell anyone about my objective, and I was trying to motivate myself, but when my family learned about it, they encouraged me a lot."
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, 60s and beyond. In British Columbia, Canada, there is even an Old-Timer Soccer League that has been operating for over 40 years, and in the UK the rise of walking football teams across the country has seen more and more over 50s return to a sport they thought they couldn't play anymore or feel inspired to take it up as a brand new hobby. It has become so popular there is now a walking football governing body and league.
The rise of walking football
Walking football was first played on May 14th 1932 between a team of Derby Railway and Crewe Railway veterans, with a combined age of 741 and 733 respectively, and repeated annually until 1936. The game then disappeared until 2011 when the Chesterfield FC Community Trust took it up. But it was a Barclays TV ad, in 2014, featuring a fan of walking football that really saw the game take off. There are more than 800 walking football clubs now, either competing as part of a league – there’s even an England football team – or simply as a recreational activity for anyone over 50 wanting to keep healthy and enjoy the social and mental benefits of playing as part of a team.
For regular walking football player Tony, in his mid sixties, it’s a joy to be able to take up the game again. "I gave up playing for my local football league in 1974. I’ve continued to be involved, helping on the admin side, but only started playing again a couple of years ago. We started kicking the ball around and everything came back to me, but the good thing is there isn’t any tackling involved so there’s no fear of injury!"
Lynne, a retired primary school teacher, played hockey when she was young, but always wanted to play football. "I never had a chance, it just wasn’t something you did when I was young, and suddenly I get into my sixties and there’s this opportunity to play!"
Walking football has become increasingly popular and is suitable for people who may have mobility problems which stop them playing faster paced games, and while it might not offer all of the health benefits that its more strenuous cousin it can still help people lose weight and prevent loneliness. Contact your local sports centre to find out if they are offering this service. Find a walking football team in your area at thewfa.co.uk.
Walking football key rules
- Players should always have one foot on the ground (no running or jogging, but fast walking is allowed)
- Six players on each side, including a goalkeeper
- No sliding tackles
- Games last 40 minutes (20 minute halves)
- Ball can not be kicked above head height
Read more rules at walkingfootball.co.uk
Health benefits of over-50s football
Although there are active women’s veteran football teams, older people’s football is especially valuable for men, who have a higher mortality rate before retirement age than women.
Physically active men have a reduced risk of premature death and 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.
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Football exercises the mind
The psychological benefits of football are as important as the physiological ones. A study done among older men playing football by Institute of Technology Blanchardstown, 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.
Many people believe the reason 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. This can promote long-term enthusiasm for exercise.
To encourage over-50s to act quickly and seek advice, Saga Health Insurance customers can call a 24/7 GP helpline for free. People can call for advice and often get a diagnosis from the comfort of their own home without having to wait for a slot with their local GP.
Overcoming the obstacles
Of course, there are obstacles in the way of mass football for older people. For starters, it gets far less attention than the provision of football for children. This can mean your local sports centre might not have a tea, and if they do it can make awareness of it in your local area harder.
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 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 of Astroturf, or real grass. In addition, experts agree that older people operate better in five- or six-a-side football, on a smaller pitch.
Indoor 5-a-side football known as futsal, after the Spanish fútbol sala or fútbol de salón (indoor football) is being pushed for people of all ages, and around the world, by the international governing bodies FIFA and AMF. At present futsal is much more popular in the rest of Europe than it is in the UK, indeed England were one of the last football-loving nations in Europe to have a national team when they set theirs up in 2003, and as of autumn 2020 have had massive budget reductions and team cut backs.
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Getting your own team together
If you and some like-minded friends are looking to put an over 50s football team together there are a few things to bear in mind. One key to successful football for older people is to keep it informal. Generally 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, 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 should agree to play the game in a more relaxed way. There are still injuries and the odd red card in over 50s football, but they are a comparative rarity.
Find a local football club to join
Try these sites to search for a football club that is right for you:
UK Football Finder
Walking Football Association
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