Modric, Pirlo, Zlatan, Benzema: 15 footballers that got better with age

Luka Modric has penned a new deal with Real Madrid that will take him into his 11th season with the club.

It really has been a titanic rise through European football from the Croatian, and an exceptional underdog story given his up-bringing in war-torn Yugoslavia.

Since leaving Tottenham for Madrid at the age of 26, he’s gone from strength-to-strength in the Spanish capital, even winning the Ballon d’Or in 2018.

He’s become part of a rare breed of player that has progressed with age, supplementing his tiring legs through enhanced footballing intellect.

But who else have we seen reach new heights once they had supposedly entered the latter stages of their career?

Well, quite a few top players actually.

14 other players that aged like a fine wine

Karim Benzema

Let’s start off with Modric’s teammate. The Frenchman spent many seasons selflessly sacrificing his own attacking returns to be an exceptional provider for the team’s great talisman Cristiano Ronaldo.

But when the Portuguese left in 2018, Benzema’s rise was stratospheric. His reputation in European football as one of the world’s finest operators has grown year-on-year, and it seems this season, after firing Madrid to the La Liga and a Champions League title with his 59 goal contributions, he will rightfully earn the Ballon d’Or.

Karim Benzema of Real Madrid
PARIS, FRANCE – MAY 28: Karim Benzema of Real Madrid celebrates with the fans after their sides victory during the UEFA Champions League final match between Liverpool FC and Real Madrid at Stade de France on May 28, 2022 in Paris, France. (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)

Xabi Alonso

Another eloquent midfield orchestrator, Alonso’s career continued on an upward trajectory all the way through until his retirement.

Liverpool fans fondly remember the Spaniard after he spent five years as Steven Gerrard’s partner in the middle of the park between 2004-2009, winning the Champions League with the club in his first season.

He then made the switch to Real Madrid, where he won his second Champions League and established himself as one of the world’s greatest deep-lying playmakers.

In 2014, he moved to Bayern Munich, and won three back-to-back Bundesliga titles before hanging up his boots in 2017.

Francesco Totti

What can be said about this iconic footballing hero? A one club man, a Roma man, an Italian legend – Totti will forever be remembered as a great.

And whilst he was always a classy baller, he was a mainstay in the Roma team until the incredible age of 40.

Andrea Pirlo

Pirlo might well be the greatest example of a footballer that gets better with age.

The Italian was a great player in his AC Milan days, winning countless honours in an incredible team. However, it was when Milan released him and he joined Juventus that Pirlo reached stratospheric heights in the game.

His influence was unmatched in his near half decade in Turin as he guided the club to four consecutive Scudetto’s.

Pirlo with Juventus
Pirlo with Juventus

James Milner

Pirlo to Milner, talk about chalk and cheese…

Everything Pirlo was, Milner is the exact opposite. Although, that’s not to say that the Liverpool man isn’t a top player in his own right.

His superhuman work ethic and unwavering mentality has made him the outstanding pro that we know today, and it’s clear why Jurgen Klopp gave him a new deal at the age of 36 just the other day.

Peter Schmeichel

The Danish keeper joined Man Utd in 1991, aged 27. By the time he left in 1999, he had won six league titles, three FA Cups and a Champions League.

Alex Ferguson branded him the ‘bargain of the century’.

Gianluigi Buffon

Buffon is one of a select few players to have played over 1,100 professional games. Yes, you read that correctly!

But don’t let that fool you, he’s not even nearly done yet. His contract with Parma runs till 2024, which will take him through to his 46th birthday.

He’s won a frightening amount of trophies in his career – most of which came after his 30th birthday – that includes no less than 10 Serie A titles.

Gianluigi Buffon in action for Juventus
Gianluigi Buffon in action for Juventus

David Silva

Silva is remembered by many as Manchester City’s greatest ever player. However, it didn’t always look like things would turn out that way.

In his decade long spell in Manchester, he gradually blossomed into the fine architect that us Premier League fans fondly remember, it was far from an instantaneous transition.

He’s now at Real Sociedad, and it seems that aged 36, time is finally beginning to catch up with him. We feel, though, that he qualifies for this list with most of his best work coming towards the end of his City career.

Antonio Di Natale

Di Natale was 33 when he won his first of back-to-back Serie A Golden Boots in 2010, and he didn’t even retire until much further down the line in 2016.

He’s yet another Italian on this list proving that you’re only as old as you feel.

Claude Makelele

It might shock you to read that Makelele didn’t sign for Chelsea until he was 30.

Three years later, he came out of international retirement to take part in the 2006 World Cup and started in the final as they beat France on penalties – but that wasn’t it for the Frenchman…

He then went on to play in the 2008 Champions League final for Chelsea and was so good in his post 30 years, that they even named a position after him.

Like a fine wine.

Claude Makelele is a Chelsea legend
Claude Makelele is a Chelsea legend

Miroslav Klose

Ah, Mr. World Cup.

The German holds the record for the most goals scored in football’s premier competition with his 16 strikes.

His last one came at the age of 34, when playing Brazil in their famous Maracana Stadium.

Klose retired at 38 and unsurprisingly, scored for Lazio in his final game to equal the record as their highest scoring foreign player.

Teddy Sheringham

Sheringham was a late bloomer to say the least. He made his England debut aged 27, and was the ripe old age of 35 when he scooped the PFA and FWA Footballer of the Year awards.

The former Man Utd star played at the very top level until he retired at 41.

Jamie Vardy

Similarly to Sheringham, Vardy was 25 before he even signed for Leicester. He’d previously been playing non-league football, but within four years he would be lifting the Premier League with the club.

Now 35, Vardy has hit double figures for the club every year since.

Jamie Vardy Premier League Golden Boot Leicester
LEICESTER, ENGLAND – JULY 26: Jamie Vardy of Leicester City poses with the Golden Boot award after the Premier League match between Leicester City and Manchester United at The King Power Stadium on July 26, 2020 in Leicester, England.Football Stadiums around Europe remain empty due to the Coronavirus Pandemic as Government social distancing laws prohibit fans inside venues resulting in all fixtures being played behind closed doors. (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)

Zlatan Ibrahimovic

Zlatan was a banker for this list. The Swede has always been an elite European striker, but he’s actually scored tonnes more goals since his 30th birthday than he did before it.

He’s won silverware everywhere he’s been, and has recently spent two seasons helping Milan re-build so they can clinch their first Serie A title in over a decade.

Not bad for a 40-year-old.

Bastoni to Man Utd, Nunez to Liverpool (The Football Terrace)

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