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Veteran service

Following a recent birthday Cris Freddi takes a look at the select group of international players to have reached triple figures

Francisco Varallo, who turned 100 in February, is the last survivor from the first World Cup. He played in the final. He shouldn’t have done. He hadn’t recovered from the injury that kept him out of the semi. But he didn’t want to miss the big game, so he told porkies about his fitness. Then he broke down in the second half and Argentina lost 4-2 to Uruguay after leading 2-1 at half time. Varallo captained Argentina when they won the Copa América in 1937 before a knee injury ended his career.

He joins a very short list. I’ve turned up only four others who lived to be 100 – and none who reached 101. Two of those died as recently as 2008 – Fernand Jaccard, a centre-half who made his debut for Switzerland in the 1934 World Cup finals, and Achilleas Grammatikopoulos, who kept goal for Greece in the same decade, including a bizarre World Cup qualifier in 1934. If Italy had lost it, they wouldn’t have taken part in the finals they staged. It was on the cards while Gram was keeping a clean sheet for the first 40 minutes but then Italy scored twice before half time and won 4-0. Achilleas was the coolest looking of the veterans, with a goatee beard like an old painter.

The oldest international goalkeeper I’ve unearthed is Jaroslav Cháňa, who played for Czechoslovakia in 1921 and died in 2000 aged 100 years, 282 days. Another keeper, Peru’s Juan Valdivieso, played in the same World Cup as Varallo, conceding a goal in the first minute of his international career. He died in 2007, four days short of his 97th birthday. The two longest-lasting England players also played in goal. Howard Baker was 95 when he died in 1987. He didn’t let in a goal in his two senior England matches, and finished sixth in the high jump and eighth in the triple jump at the 1920 Olympics. When Dick Pym died in 1988 he was a month older than Baker. He won three England caps and kept clean sheets for Bolton in three FA Cup finals in the 1920s. Bert Williams, former Wolves and England keeper, turned 90 recently. And Sverre Lie, who died at 95 in 1983, saved a penalty in Norway’s first ever international match, against Sweden in 1908.

There’s a poignant tale among the centurions – a graphic illustration of what a lottery war can be. Georges Géronimi won one cap for France in 1911, his brother Charles one cap in 1914. Early in 1915, Charles was killed on the Western Front when he was 19 or 20, one of the shortest-lived international players. Meanwhile, Georges outlived him by 78 years, dying when he was 100.

Alessandro Rampini also came through that war. He played for Italy in 1920 and lived to a ripe (and neat) 99 years, 99 days. The best player on the list was the great Billy McCracken, who perfected the offside game and took no shit from anybody, especially the Ireland selectors. As a result, he had a gap of 12 years in his international career, which lasted from 1902 to 1923. McCracken was 95 when he died in 1979 but Jimmy Small was older – 96 when he left us in 1963. He captained Ireland against England 70 years earlier.

The most famous old timer was Lucien Laurent. His death in 2005 left Varallo as the last survivor of Uruguay 1930. Before every recent World Cup, they’d show Laurent kicking a ball around in his village in France, including a shot into the net – he scored the very first World Cup goal. He was 97 when he died. So was Philip Slone in 2004. He was in the USA squad for that first World Cup but won his only cap just after it.

The oldest England player still alive is Phil Taylor, capped three times in 1947 and the last manager for donkeys’ years not to win anything with Liverpool. But he’s only 92, and Ivor Powell of Wales is a mere 93. If there’s anyone else out there approaching 100, he’ll want people to know. Or maybe not. When Varallo reached the ton, his congratulatory telegram was sent by Sepp Blatter.

I’ve found only two Football League players who made it to three figures. Zillwood “Zach” March played for Brighton and Portsmouth in the early 1920s and died in 1994 when he was 101. Wilf Nixon went on even longer. He played for Fulham before and after the First World War, and the club celebrated his 100th birthday by inviting him down to Craven Cottage for the match against Burnley in October 1982. But he fell ill before kick-off and spent the afternoon in Charing Cross Hospital. Luckily it’s just across the road. He died in 1985 aged 102.

From WSC 278 April 2010

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