We have come to expect too much of footballers


Plenty of things were written in the wake of the news of Michael Owen's imminent announcement, many of them laudably kind. For all the recent backlash surrounding his po-faced media persona, Owen deserves to be remembered for what he was at his best: one of England's greatest finishers. If this week is anything to go by, the tedium of his Twitter feed will rightly fade into insignificance in the long run.

One recurring theme in the Owen eulogy party warrants further scrutiny, however. It is the idea that, because of the series of injuries that have tormented him since the mid-2000s, Owen somehow only had "half a career".

In one respect, this is fairly uncontroversial stuff: truly, Owen's is a career of two parts. The first was a glorious romp, filmed in technicolour at Anfield, the Millennium Stadium and the Bernabeu. The second has taken place in the dank limbo of treatment rooms and the office of Dr Richard Steadman. (Aside: has anybody ever actually met Dr Richard Steadman? Does he actually exist? Is he industry code for something altogether more sinister? Please send answers on a postcard.) If you went back to visit a 26-year-old Owen and offered him the second half of his career as it has actually turned out, he'd probably laugh you all the way to the police station. (A joke there about Owen's perceived lack of a sense of humour. Keep up at the back.)

Yet there is some implication that we were somehow owed a career of non-stop joy lasting 15 to 20 years. Or worse: that he can be considered a failure because his achievements, which once came so thick and fast, were latterly spread so thin. Think how many England goals Michael Owen should have scored, runs the logic. Think of the number of records he could have rewritten.

But with football developing as it is, this train of thought is almost comically outdated. The physical exertion professional football demands means that we simply cannot expect players to operate at the top level for 15 years anymore. Owen deserves a break.

Players are making their mark on the game before they have finished developing physically. Michael Owen was playing for Liverpool at 17. (Try to remember what you were doing at 17. It's not as impressive, is it?) At that age, the human body can take a great deal of abuse - but not without cost. By the time Owen reached 26 - and was thus entering what received wisdom tells us are a footballer's best years - he had played well over 300 games. 300 games of lightning pace. 300 games of quick turns. 300 games of getting kicked by fed-up defenders.

Ignore the freakish counter-example of Ryan Giggs for a second (...he said, trying to tape the scattered pieces of his argument back together). Some players never manage 300 games over the course of their whole careers. Should we be surprised that that workload took its toll?

Other players are demonstrating similar signs of wear and tear. Wayne Rooney may have avoided serious injury, but few would deny that his Donkey-Kong swagger has lost some of its lustre during the 50-games-per-season grind of his career to date. Even if he toils away into his thirties, would that necessarily be preferable to Owen's more bipolar career?

The problem is not unique to England. Confronted by the demands of the modern game, Ronaldo Fenômeno suffered crippling knee injuries which marred the latter stages of his career. He and other (initially) lithe players like Alexandre Pato have sought to protect themselves by increasing muscle mass, but that has proven to be no less detrimental in the long run. (If I hear another commentator or pundit suggest that Chelsea midfielder Oscar needs to "bulk up," by the way, I will break something.)

The lesson we must learn is this: it is simply not reasonable to expect footballers to perform to the best of their abilities for 15 seasons, playing twice a week for nine months of the year. We must either reduce their workload or get used to seeing talented footballers like Owen burn brightly and fade just as fast. "Half a career" may be all we can expect from professional players in the modern era.

Read more articles by Jack Lang.