Dreams of Youth: the allure of retirement comebacks
The toughest thing, they say, is knowing when to walk away. Knowing when the body has had enough, when the mind has lost its sharpness, and the hunger in the belly has started to fade. When a single task has consumed your every effort since you were child, and that single defining dream has driven your to push yourself every day, waking up without it can require a significant readjustment.
Footballers, for the most part, tend to stay retired. A few find their way back, but not with the frequency of prize fighters or Ronnie O’Sullivan, who seem to retire everytime they aren’t actively doing the thing they are paid for.
There is something intoxicating about proving you’ve still got it, lapping up the applause just one more time. Yes, I went away, but look, I’m still all I was.
Eric Cantona famously bid the football world adieu whilst still at the peak of his powers – but no comeback was necessary for a man who had already had his redemptive moment when returning from his ban following the kung fu kick on a fan against Crystal Palace in 1995. After nine months on the sidelines, he was talismanic in Manchester United’s league and cup double in the 1995/96 season.
Cantona, despite the strutting arrogance of his playing style, resisted the urge to return, content with the occasional game of beach football and pursuing an acting career.
Rivaldo, however, is not a man whose ego has waned. The 2002 World Cup winner, and holder of the award for Most Ridiculous Dive of All Time, is now owner and president of Brazilian Serie B side Mogi Mirim. At the beginning of the month, he became captain as well, pulling on his boots at the age of 43 to help drag his side from the bottom of the table.
Rivaldo, embarking on his return, claimed he would have won Ballon d’Or considerably more frequently than the once he managed, were he at his peak in the modern era.
That is perhaps a moot point, but he is undoubtedly having an impact – scoring a penalty and having a hand in two other goals as his side beat Macae 3-1. Perhaps the most notable thing about that particular game was one of his fellow goalscorers was his son, 20 year old Rivaldinho.
It’s not always ego that draws a player out of retirement, sometimes it’s begging and pleading.
With Manchester United desperately short of midfield options, Sir Alex Ferguson coaxed Paul Scholes into a return just five months after his testimonial. Scholes, ever aware of his place in his surroundings, had deemed the time right to call it a day, that hunger fading and at 36 the engine wasn’t there any more either – a man so often late into the tackle anyway, he probably reasoned he couldn’t afford to be any later to them…
But Sir Alex is a persuasive man, and Scholes played a further eighteen months. Although not coming out of retirement Laurent Blanc, Michael Owen and Henrik Larsson are three others who joined United in their twlight years, in all three cases several seasons after the time they would’ve been their best fit for United.
So, why risk your reputation and your legacy by coming out of retirement or by making that late career move?
It’s often a decision ruled by heart not head – only in the case of a money spinning tour in the backwaters of club football (Exhibit A, Xavi Hernandez) might head be leading. Where heart wins out, players are following the dreams they had as children, hitting a ball against a wall and pretending it was Old Trafford. Either you want one last stab at proving you belong there, or you had it, gave it up and miss it too much to stay away.
The second is dangerous. Scholes just about carried it off with his legacy intact, he was there to smooth a transition, although United failed to bring through the youngsters that were playing around him and have been forced to buy big. For Drogba and Henry, their return to the Premier League was less of a fairytale, more a tribute act – a leisurely wave to the crowd in Henry’s case especially.
Should we be warning against the return? Probably not. Heart rules head a lot in football, and to rely too heavily on rationality would be to deny it much of its charm.
But when a comeback does happen…we should probably all make a collective promise to remember them as they were, not as they are.
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