"It was the best birthday ever," said former Galatasaray AŞ and 1. FC Köln goalkeeper Faryd Mondragón after Colombia's back-up custodian became the FIFA World Cup's oldest-ever player, three days after turning 43.
Mondragón came on for the last six minutes of Colombia's final Group C match in Cuiaba as his side beat Japan 4-1 to top the section. In so doing the veteran eclipsed the record held by Cameroon's Roger Milla, who was 42 years, one month and eight days old when he last played at USA '94.
Mondragón was quick to thank his coach. "José Pekerman convinced me to continue playing – I will never forget that. If it wasn't for him, I would have retired two years ago. I feel privileged to be here," said Mondragón, who also counts spells at FC Metz and Real Zaragoza among the European adventures of his 24-year career.
A half-season stint at Zaragoza was Mondragón's first foray into Europe in 1999, but the keeper made his mark on the continent with Metz two campaigns later in 2000/01. His imposing stature, athleticism and consistently impressive displays earned him rave reviews during 31 games for Les Grenats, as he helped Metz not only avoid relegation but finish 12th. Galatasaray soon came calling.
Finally settling down in Europe, Mondragón enjoyed a fruitful time in Turkey from 2001–07, claiming Süper Lig crowns in 2002 and 2006 plus a Turkish Cup winners' medal in 2005. In all, he made 185 league appearances and 30 UEFA Champions League outings, the highlight being progression to the second group stage in 2001/02.
His leadership skills and penchant for spectacular and decisive saves gained him many admirers at the club, and the love was mutual. "It's not possible for me to forget Cimbom," said Mondragón. "I spent the best six years of my life in Istanbul. The yellow and red colours have a special place in my life. My name is identified with Galatasaray from now on."
Mondragón's career path took an unexpected turn in 2007 when he joined German second division outfit Köln, but with a new challenge came rejuvenation. "When Köln made the offer, I had one year left on my Galatasaray contract. I would have probably finished my career after that. But coming out of the dressing room and seeing a packed stadium is my addiction."
He immediately caught the eye and became a leader in the dressing room as well as on the pitch, excelling as his team secured promotion – an "unbelievable, remarkable experience". Mondragón also wrote his name in the history books as "the first South American keeper in the Bundesliga, which is very special to me".
From the verge of quitting to the Bundesliga, Mondragón's career trajectory rose with his age. Six years on from his projected retirement he is plying his trade at the club – Deportivo Cali – that launched his talent and setting records in his third World Cup, two decades on from his first. The secret? "Every year you gain wisdom. You can smell things before they happen."
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