How old is too old?

Ageing stars Frank Lampard (right) and Didier Drogba have reignited Chelsea's campaign this season.-AP Ageing stars Frank Lampard (right) and Didier Drogba have reignited Chelsea's campaign this season.

Age is no barrier for sportsmen. Players continue to shine even well past their 30s. All of which elicits the question: should age be the implacable criterion? Brian Glanville explores.

It is an open secret that Chelsea have offered the 34-year-old Didier Drogba no more than a one-year contract when his current one ends this season. Drogba wants two years and it seems that Chelsea will not accommodate him, so that the big, still vigorously effective, Ivory Coast centre forward will leave on a free transfer this summer. Chelsea, meanwhile, are said to be pursuing a younger striker in the shape of the Brazilian at Porto, nicknamed The Hulk.

Yet as recently as in Chelsea's remarkable turnaround of their European Cup quarterfinal at home to Napoli, Drogba had been the very catalyst of their success. He it was who drove in the header that gave Chelsea the lead against the earlier run of play. He again it was who in injury-time, skilfully turned the ball on for Branislav Ivanovic to strike the shot home, to give Chelsea their fourth decisive goal.

Yet in Manchester, in the subsequent match against Manchester City in the Premiership, Drogba, to the critical disapproval of sections of the Press, did not start the game but came on only as a second half substitute, the preference going to Fernando Torres, the US$30 million disappointment who, admittedly, had at last shone and even, after a five-month famine, scored, a few days previously, in the FA Cup against Leicester. Those reporters who defended him emphasised that he was wrongly left alone up field, obliged to play with his back to the goal, in a style quite foreign to his natural instincts.

Be that as it may, there can be little if any doubt that whatever his age, Drogba remains vastly the more effective player, while though Hulk is much younger than he, there is no guarantee that he would fit into the style of the side.

Then there is Frank Lampard, shortly, himself, to turn 34 and largely excluded in the previous confused regime of the departed Villas-Boas. Seemingly put out to graze, Lampard influentially returned for the return match against Napoli and unquestionably still has much to do with the functioning of central midfield, even if, inevitably, his pace has somewhat diminished. All of which elicits the question, how old is too old, and should age be the implacable criterion?

My mind goes back a long way to a once celebrated Danish international inside left John Hansen, a star with Juventus and Lazio and a major figure in Italian football whom one has cited in the past, as asserting that things went awry with the Denmark national team when, after the 1948 Olympic tournament in London, he and other stars went abroad and younger players had to fend for themselves with indifferent results.

How significant meanwhile that even Manchester United, famed over the years for the so called Busby Babes and so many youthful stars from poor doomed Duncan Edwards through Bobby Charlton to George Best, should this season under Alex Ferguson turn to such elderly figures as Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes with such notable success.

Giggs himself was a teenaged star at outside left. Now, at the age of 37, he remains a potent force and in midfield at that, where you would think the demands on running and stamina would be greater than those demanded from a winger. As for Scholes he had even gone into retirement at the age of 37 when Ferguson evidently in some desperation suddenly brought him out of retirement and threw him immediately and somewhat recklessly into the Manchester Derby game when, coming on to general amazement as a substitute, he contrived instantly and perhaps, not surprisingly, to give away a goal. But in the very next game he was coolly asserting his midfield influence and contriving to score as well.

We all know that goalkeepers now seem to go on forever, with Dino Zoff between the posts for Italy when over the age of 40. But perhaps the most astonishing example of all was that of Roger Milla who, generally coming on as a second half substitute, would electrify the Cameroon attack in the Italian World Cup of 1990. His official age was 38 but he had been around so long that no one could be sure he was not older. He got only eight minutes in Cameroon's opening game, in which his team sensationally defeated the then trophy holder, Argentina, but, thereafter, he proved a potent weapon.

In Cameroon's second game against Romania, Milla came on after 58 minutes supposedly at the behest of the President of Cameroon. He proceeded to score both his team's goals in a 2-0 win, thus becoming the oldest player to score in the World Cup finals. Carlo Vittori, an Italian athletics coach, ascribed Milla's amazing speed to muscles developed as an inland West African, then mysteriously saying he had the strong muscles of one who lived on the West Coast. Two more notable goals came against Colombia, and he shone in the narrow defeat by England. How old was, or is, too old?