When 22-year-old Stefan de Vrij decided to join Lazio this summer, he became one of the few leading performers of the World Cup to snub the likes of the Premier League or La Liga — who tempted James Rodriguez and Toni Kroos away from their respective leagues — and moved to Italy with his best years still ahead of him.
In contrast 35-year-old Rafael Marquez joined Hellas Verona on Tuesday. Manchester United pair Nemanja Vidic (32) and Patrice Evra (33) followed, as well as 33-year-old former England international Ashley Cole who have all headed to Italy very much in the latter stages of their careers. Thus it poses the question of whether Serie A has now become a retirement home for fading stars?
In the early 1980’s and 1990’s Serie A was very much the place to be for players at their peak; with just two European Footballer’s of the Year between 1982 and 1993, Igor Belanov (1986) and Jean-Pierre Papin (1991), hailing from outside Italy and within 12 months Papin was walking out at the San Siro, so could have Belanov had it not been for the restrictions on players exiting the then Soviet Union.
Serie A have not had a recipient of the UEFA award since 2007 when Kaka walked away with the prize, and fellow AC Milan teammate Andriy Shevchenko three years previously; but both of them arrived ahead of their prime at 21 and 23 years old respectively.
In statistical terms, the average age of those coming to Serie A has remained consistent at just 24 years of age, with many youngsters still plucked from afar. The over-thirties have increased slightly with 13 30-year-old plus players signing last term compared to the eight during the 2004-05 season, headed then by the returning 36-year-old Paolo Di Canio.
However, a quick scan of the arrivals a decade ago that included Abel Xavier, Vikash Dhorasoo and even European Championship winning captain Theodoros Zagorakis, shows that while they have increased today the quality is nonetheless much higher. Vidic in particular still has plenty left to offer on the pitch, just as Maicon and Joaquin made contributions at Roma and Fiorentina respectively last season.
Of the other elder statesmen to join the aforementioned Premier League trio this summer are Seydou Keita and centre-back Alex, who both bring a wealth of European experience. Fiorentina newcomer Jose Maria Basanta also brings his own know-how, albeit in North and South America, with only Albert Riera saddling the much maligned ‘journeyman’ tag.
Serie A being well known for the longevity of its players, particularly in Milan where Javier Zanetti’s recent retirement at 39 succeeded to the notable and lengthy careers of legendary crosstown rivals Paolo Maldini, Franco Baresi and Alessandro Costacurta, plenty more to come from the current batch of veterans.
Just look at Andrea Pirlo. At 35 he is still pulling the strings for Juventus as they netted a third straight Scudetto and returned to playing a key role in former coach Cesare Prandelli’s Azzurri. While Francesco Totti, two years his senior, still proved vital for Roma last season when pushing the Bianconeri to a record breaking campaign.
If the aging Keita and Cole can help the Giallorossi take the final step towards a first title since 2001, few will be debating whether they came looking to ‘see out’ the final years of their career in the capital. As it will be the case in Milan if defenders Alex and Vidic help form the foundations for the return of Champions League football to the San Siro in 2015. Whatever the final outcome however, Serie A as a whole will certainly benefit from their arrival.
Follow Kevin Pogorzelski on Twitter: @rabbitrabbiton