Every time he scores a goal. Lionel Messi raises his arms to the heavens and dedicates it to his late grandmother Celia. “She was the one who used to bring me to football. I wish she was still here but she died before seeing me make it, that’s what hurts the most.” Dona Celia, the first to realise the potential of the Argentinian megastar, passed away when Messi was only 11, but she is constantly in his thoughts.
Football owes a considerable debt to Celia and countless other grandparents who passed on their love of the beautiful game to the next generation. As a tribute to them and other elder citizens who have demonstrated an enduring devotion to the game, FIFA.com brings you a collection of tales that prove football really can be a lifelong passion.
Despite his 87 years, Englishman Billy Ingham still likes nothing better than going to watch his beloved Everton. A Toffees fan since he was 17, Billy has become a fixture at Goodison Park, where you will find him bedecked in a blue-and-white scarf but only after of his pre-match ritual of saying 'goodbye' to a photo of his late wife Netta, who sadly passed away in 2012.
“When we were courting, she said, ‘Can’t I come to the stadium too?’. But in those days, you never took a woman to the match. In the end, though, I gave in and took her. She was made up and that’s how she became an Everton fan.” On hearing his story, the sponsors of the English Premier League paid tribute to Billy at the start of the 2013 season by featuring him in their Thank You advert to dedicated fans.
Another veteran supporter to be recently honoured by a Premier League club was Jack Henry Jones. Indisputably West Bromwich Albion’s oldest fan, Jack witnessed the team’s one and only League title win as an 11-year-old back in 1920. Since then the world has changed enormously but his loyalty to the Baggies’ remains the same.
To mark his 107th birthday, he was a guest of honour at the club for their home game against Southampton. As well as the VIP treatment, Jack received several gifts, including a personalised jersey presented by captain Darren Fletcher, who was amazed by Jack’s dedication. “It’s incredible. He’s 107 and has been a West Brom fan all his life,” said the skipper.
A few months earlier and half a world away, some other elderly fans had cause to celebrate. It was December 2014 and Argentinian club Racing de Avellaneda were top of the league heading into the final matchday. However, River Plate were also in the title mix, which presented something of a dilemma for the grandmother of Racing player Ricardo Centurion. “I’m a River fan but I’m going to cheer on my grandson,” she told reporters days before the season finale.
And though we can only speculate about the family celebrations when La Academia were subsequently crowned champions, it may have resembled those of elderly Racing fan Juan and his young grandson Octavio. A photo of them hugging and weeping after the goal that gave the club its first title in 13 years was seen around the world and touched all those who saw it. “I had a hip operation three years ago, so now I need a stick to go to the stadium. Even so, I promised my grandson he’d see us win the title and it’s come to pass,” said a still emotional Juan when asked about the photo afterwards.
With age comes wisdom
“El Atleti is everything,” Joaquin Santisteban told FIFA.com, adding: “For us Atletico Madrid fans it’s something you’re born with. We’re different from all the others – cut from a different cloth you might say.” Joaquin inherited his love for Atletico from his 96-year-old mother Pituca, who is not only the club’s oldest member but, alongside her son, part of the famous Senado Rojiblanco (Red-and-White Senate).
The institution is unique in Spanish football in that only those fans who have been club members for more than 50 years may join. “We collaborate with the club, its Foundation and the veteran players, and we meet twice a week,” explained Joaquin. “One of us has been a socio for 80 years so it’s fitting we offer advice, even if they later do as they please,” he added with a chuckle.
At 68, Joaquin is the ‘baby’ and vice-president of the Senate and feels the passage of time most when it’s Atletico’s turn to suffer. “You experience football the same but the pain gets harder to take as you get older. That said, the passion always stays with you.”
Another collective whose devotion has not been affected by the passing years is the Schalke supporters group that Heinrich Hohnert belongs to. Consisting entirely of residents from a retirement home in Gelsenkirchen, the group is said to have the oldest football fans in Germany. Each matchday its members huddle around the TV to cheer on their beloved Royal Blues. “Every time they score, I blow my trumpet,” said 95-year-old Heinrich. “That’s what makes me happiest.”
A therapeutic effect
It is well known that the passion football can arouse, coupled with its social aspect, can even have a therapeutic effect on its followers. Just ask the University of the West of Scotland which, in 2008, collaborated in a project aimed at slowing memory loss caused by diseases such as Alzheimer’s with the use of footballing reminiscences. The results could not have been better and, since 2013, the project has also been implemented in Spain.
“The directors of the nursing homes where we organised the workshops are telling us ‘You’ve no idea the impact this is having’,” said a clearly delighted Juan Maria Zorriqueta. The former Athletic Bilbao defender and current president of the Spanish Federation of Veteran Footballer Associations organised the project in his homeland and has witnessed first-hand the benefits of the workshops.
“When we visited [Athletic Bilbao’s] new San Mames stadium, the participants couldn’t contain themselves,” he told FIFA.com. Events like that along with games such as recognising team songs and singing them are improving the quality of people’s lives and bringing a smile to the faces of many elderly folk. Also benefitting are the former players who have volunteered for the project, as Juan Maria attested: “It’s been truly joyful to see how we in the football community can help.”