When most of us turn 40, the idea of physical activity mainly turns to golf courses or at least the five-a-side pitch. But there is a special breed of individuals (mainly goalkeepers) who still plied their trade on the grandest stage of them all and here’s a look at the oldest footballers in World Cup history.
1. Essam El-Hadary
(45 years, 161 days)
Egypt vs. Saudi Arabia – June 25th 2018
After defeats in their first two matches at the 2018 FIFA World Cup, marking a somewhat disappointing return to the finals for the first time in 28 years, Egypt didn’t have much reason to cheer heading into the final match with Saudi Arabia. That was until the team sheets were handed in and an ever present of their triple Africa Cup of Nations success from 2008-2012 took his place between the goalposts as goalkeeper Essam El-Hadary became the oldest player in a World Cup history, as well as the oldest to make their debut.
It wasn’t exactly a quiet day at the office for El-Hadary either, being called into action to save a first-half penalty (making him the first African to save a penalty at the World Cup finals) although he wasn’t so lucky with a second on the stroke of half-time, with Egypt eventually suffering a 2-1 defeat in Volgograd.
Having made his international debut in 1996, ten months before the youngest member of the Egyptian national team’s 2018 World Cup squad was born, El-Hadary made 159 appearances for his country winning the AFCON title on four different occasions whilst being named the best goalkeeper of the tournament three times.
2. Faryd Mondragón
(43 years, 3 days)
Colombia vs. Japan – June 24th 2014
With Colombian victory and knock-out stage qualification assured in their final group stage match against Japan, head coach José Pékerman allowed Faryd Mondragón one last moment in the sun as with five minutes to go, the goalkeeper became the then-oldest player in a World Cup game.
Thankfully for the Colombian shotshopper, he does still hold one key record. Having been part of Colombia’s squad for the 1998 World Cup in France (in which he started all three of their group stage games), Mondragón’s gap of 15 years and 363 days since his last appearance in the finals is still the longest a player has had to wait between two World Cup games.
For Mondragón, this would be the ultimate final bow. Elimination in the quarterfinals by Brazil (with his seat nicely warmed up again on the bench) saw him announce his retirement from all football, having made his first international appearance against Venezuela in 1993 after being named in their Olympics squad the previous year.
3. Roger Milla
(42 years, 39 days)
Cameroon vs. Russia – June 12th 1994
Two records for the price of one here. Not only did Roger Milla become the, at the time, oldest player in World Cup history, the striker also got himself on the scoresheet with the consolation goal in the 6-1 defeat to Russia (you know, the same match in which Oleg Salenko set the record for the most goals by an individual player at five) to become the oldest goalscorer, a record he still holds. It would prove to be the final goal of Milla’s lengthy international playing career that had appeared to have ended six years previously at the somewhat youthful age of 36.
Only the begging of Cameroon’s president saw him come out of retirement to join Les Lions Indomitable’s 1990 World Cup campaign in Italy and, with it, catching the world’s attention with his goals and corner flag-based celebrations helping them become the first ever African nation to reach the quarter-finals where they were knocked out by England. Milla’s goals made him the oldest ever goal scorer of a World Cup Finals goal, but this appearance was only enough to become the oldest outfield player at the time (as we’ll find out more soon). But by coming back in 1994, he would set the mark to be beaten by an overall player.
Milla would end his career having played 77 times for Cameroon after made his debut in 1973, scoring 43 goals. His World Cup debut came in 1982, starting in all three of their group stage games. After the 1994 World Cup, Milla continue to play for another two seasons in Indonesia before finally calling time on his career.
Now you might be wondering where Pelé features on the list of oldest players in World Cup history. Well, the Brazilian star’s final game came in the 1970 final against Italy in Mexico where he also scored the opening goal of a 4-1 triumph. But Pelé was a mere 30-year-old at the time so not even worthy of consideration when it comes to this list.
4. Pat Jennings
(41 years old)
Northern Ireland vs. Brazil – June 12th 1986
What a way to celebrate your 41st birthday – playing in a World Cup finals match for the final time and, in the process, setting a new mark for the oldest player to have done so. The only trouble for Pat Jennings is that he came up against a Brazil side who were in their own mood to party – putting three past the birthday boy in Mexico.
Somewhat bizarrely, Jennings had retired from league football after the 1984-1985 season having been displaced as Arsenal’s number one by John Lukic but continued to play for former club Tottenham Hotspur’s reserve team in order to maintain match sharpness.
Across an illustrious career that saw him heralded as one of the best goalkeepers of all-time, Jennings played in over 1,000 top level matches including 119 for Northern Ireland (second most in the country’s history behind Steven Davis). Famously Jennings also got himself on the scoresheet in the 1967 Charity Shield whilst playing for Tottenham Hotspur, with a long-range kick from his own box bouncing over the head of Manchester United shot-stopper Alex Stepney.
5. Peter Shilton
(40 years and 292 days)
England v Italy – July 7th 1990
Despite not making his World Cup finals debut until he was 32 years old, Peter Shilton certainly made up for lost time. The last of his 17 appearances came in the 1990 third-place play-off which would end in defeat for England and Shilton, who retired from international football after the game having made 125 appearances for his country, still the overall record holder for the Three Lions.
When thinking of Shilton’s standout moments during World Cup tournaments, focus will obviously turn to either ‘The Hand of God’ goal against Argentina or his ‘attempts’ to save penalties during the 1990 semi-final shootout against West Germany (penalty saves wasn’t his forte during his international career, managing to stop just one in 1985). But it is worth remembering across his three finals appearances, Shilton kept 10 clean sheets – a joint record held alongside France’s Fabien Barthez.
1990 wasn’t the end of Shilton’s career though. He kept playing league football until the 1996-1997 season for then-third division side Leyton Orient where he racked up his 1,000th English Football League game at the age of 47 before eventually retiring at the end of the campaign. Sadly, Shilton would never make a Premier League appearance although he did find himself on the bench for West Ham United and Coventry City.
Having spoken about the oldest players to play and score in a World Cup finals match, it’s only fair to briefly mention the oldest player to win the World Cup. That honour belongs to Italian Dino Zoff, who captained Italy to victory in the 1982 tournament in Spain.