Games between teams of alumni and veterans — masters or legends teams, as the marketing always has it — should, if anything, be worse, even more meaningless, even more devoid of tension. And yet, that afternoon late in March, Anfield was almost full. Nearly 55,000 people were there when, with a few minutes to go, the former Liverpool defender Bjorn-Tore Kvarme scored the game’s final goal. It finished 5-5.
There is, it seems, a considerable, widespread appetite for seeing former players back in a team’s colors. Masters tournaments are nothing new — in England, an annual Masters Football competition ran until sparse attendances and dwindling television interest forced its cancellation in 2011 — but never before have they been such a boom industry.
Now a host of clubs regularly stage veterans’ games in support of charitable foundations, and a raft of organizations and tournaments have sprung up to meet the rising demand, particularly for short, small-sided games. Some of that is in Europe — Berlin’s AOK Traditionsmasters has been played every year since 2010 — but, increasingly, it is also further afield.
Masters Football may no longer hold games in England, but it stages regular meetings of teams representing Liverpool and Arsenal in Singapore. Football Champions Tour has been arranging showpiece games for 10 years and, last year, together with the marketing agency Pitch International, launched Star Sixes in London.
It intends to turn the format into an annual event and, though attendance in London was good, according to F.C.T.’s director, Jamie Jarvis, the competition’s next iteration most likely will be in Asia.
“A lot of the interest is from markets that did not see these players day in, day out during their careers,” Jarvis said. “But London is a difficult market. We have had interest from Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, China, South Africa, Tokyo, Sydney.”
F.C.T. tends to recruit high-profile former stars — Star Sixes featured the likes of Luis Figo, Roberto Carlos and Carles Puyol — to play six-a-side games, on the grounds that full-scale matches on full-size pitches can be a “hard slog” not only for the older players, but for the fans.
That is part of the appeal, of course: the chance to see recently retired heroes in action, something that fans in the Far East were not able to do during their careers. But the opportunity to get close to them is another draw: retired players are “far more accessible” than their successors, Jarvis said.
It is an approach that AOK Traditionsmasters has used since its inception eight years ago, pitting teams representing various German and international clubs against each other over the course of six hours in the Max-Schmeling-Halle in Berlin. “Our visitors can get autographs and selfies with the players,” said the event’s founder, Bernd Kuhn. “As well as six hours of great soccer, for a much cheaper price than you pay to go to a Bundesliga game.”
Most important of all in his eyes, though, is the shot of nostalgia the occasion provides. “It is a chance to see the old guys,” he said. “You can dream of the old days, and show your kids the players you loved.” The fact that there are always “one or two players who are heavier than the audience” does not hurt, either.
Kuhn’s tournament will be 10 years old next year, when for the first time he plans to hold it over two days. Ideally, he said, he would like to hold qualifying events across Germany, turning the Berlin showpiece — at the height of the Bundesliga’s winter break — into a national finals. He feels there is enough appetite among fans. If anything, though, the players are even more enthusiastic.