"I'm not the oldest, but the most experienced," jokes Marco Ballotta. Spun with the skill of a politician, the S.S. Lazio goalkeeper might have a career in public relations when his playing career does eventually come to an end. For the moment he is hoping it just it runs and runs.
In an industry where the focus is on uncovering the next young superstar, Ballotta put in a case for the old guard on the opening night of the UEFA Champions League. When he took the field against Olympiacos CFP he became the oldest player to compete in the group stage, aged 43 years and 168 days. Given that Lazio had surprised many merely by reaching the group stage for the first time in four years, the chance to play at Europe's top table came as an unexpected bonus.
"I'm very satisfied to be involved in a competition as important as the Champions League and for guys like me it means a lot," he said. "Not many get to my age being able to. There is no particular secret. You need to stay motivated, but the most important thing is to keep having fun, both in training and during games. Add that to an injury-free career and you have the answer. I just live a normal life and try to leave nothing to chance. I know myself and how to get ready for a big game. I always listen to my body. I don't think there is any better doctor than yourself when it comes to deciding when to stop and when to carry on. The rest is in your mind, you need to concentrate in what you're doing."
The tussle with 21-year-old Nestor Fernando Muslera for a starting place has kept Ballotta firmly focused this season. It is a classic case of youth versus experience, with Ballotta seeming to have won over coach Delio Rossi. "If I make a mistake it's because I'm old and when a young player makes the mistake it's because he's inexperienced, there's no way round it," Ballotta says. "A healthy competition for places is always good. We just have to be ready to play when the coach wants us to do and that's what we've been doing."
Neither would have been playing at all had Lazio completed the signing of CA River Plate goalkeeper Juan Pablo Carrizo who had been lined up to replace Angelo Peruzzi. The two clubs reached agreement but Carrizo was unable to obtain an Italian passport and the deal fell through. Carrizo's loss is Ballotta's gain and the veteran is making the most of the opportunity. Now in his 26th season, the much-travelled goalkeeper, who began his career at Bologna FC and has since represented ten clubs up and down Italy, is enjoying his second taste of the UEFA Champions League. Ballotta played four games for Lazio in the competition in 1999/2000, lining up in a star-studded squad that included the likes of Alen Bokšić, Fabrizio Ravanelli, Alessandro Nesta, Roberto Mancini, Juan Sebastián Verón and Dejan Stanković.
Those were different times. New austerity measures imposed by club president Claudio Lotito ensure Lazio's future will not be gambled on the short-term success that nearly bankrupted the club in 2004. "This is a fresh start for us," Ballotta says. "Lazio are slowly coming back after a few very difficult years. The fact we're back in the Champions League is a great way to show that progress. For a club that was very close to extinction and went into liquidation, to be able to come back after two or three years and qualify for the Champions League is amazing."
Having come this far Lazio are refusing to cede ground to anyone. Ballotta concedes that during the game with Olympiacos on Matchday 1 "took a whole half for us to realise we were up to the standards required", and it is a measure of how far they have come that their subsequent draw with Real Madrid CF should be greeted with disappointment. “We thought they were there for the taking, everybody saw the chances we created against mighty Real, but the most important thing was our performance against such a big side because we showed we weren't scared of Real Madrid. They didn't impress us at all."
Ballotta considers Italy No1 Gianluigi Buffon as "the best in the world" – a fine example for any aspiring, or even aging, keeper. "Nothing has changed," Ballotta says. "
When I was young I was told I had to work hard to improve, now I'm older I'm told I have to work even harder because of my age. I have always given everything. If I what to continue at this level there is no other way."
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