Change in Giggs’s Role Brightens the Twilight of His Career

Growing old gracefully is very difficult for athletes. Just to drop a few American names who face it: Favre, Roddick, Jeter and Woods (obviously, in very diverse circumstances).

As hard as it is, Ryan Giggs, 20 years into his career with Manchester United, has remained a potent force by becoming a rather different player.

No longer able to hurtle himself goalward from the left flank for a full 90 minutes, Giggs, 37, has become an exquisite spot player, more playmaker and midfielder than wing. His No. 11 and his marvelously vibrant physique remain the same. He just does different things.

No soccer player lasts 20 years with the same franchise — not at Giggs’s level, and surely not with one of the best squads in the world. But he is a very good bet to start on the left side for Manchester United on Tuesday at FC Schalke 04 of Germany in the first leg of the semifinals of the Champions League.

Stars of American football almost never have the option of changing roles, because body type determines everything. A few great basketball players have learned to scale back in search of a championship — Shaquille O’Neal these days, Oscar Robertson back in the day. Cal Ripken moved to third base to prolong his career, and Ernie Banks learned to play first base.

Giggs has essentially reinvented himself on the fly, in a sport with no timeouts, no designated hitter, no nickel backs, no place to hide.

After a slow start, Giggs has pulled his squad together. He has done it with layers of mystique already enveloping him. As a springy teenager from Cardiff, Wales, he made his debut as a sub for Man U on March 2, 1991, and scored his first goal a few days later. With Beatle-esque appeal, he was pursued by the furies, at least until David Beckham so kindly rescued him from most of that, partly because Beckham wanted it and Giggs did not.

Over the years, Giggs became part of the answer to the question “Who are the greatest players to never appear in the World Cup?” (One answer: George Best of Northern Ireland, George Weah of Liberia and Giggs of Wales, all from smaller nations that could not qualify; other superb players had bad luck or injuries and never quite made it.)

Giggs retired from international play in 2007, but now virtually a separate generation is able to watch him perform tasks that used to be unthinkable or unnecessary for him. He is helping Man U toward its 19th league title — 6 points ahead with four matches left.

Most recently, last Saturday, Alex Ferguson, his rhino jaws frighteningly chomping gum, held Giggs out of the starting lineup to give him a rest for Schalke three days later. However, when Man U sputtered, there was Giggs, in the 74th minute, like oil in a creaky engine.

The lads produced a goal 10 minutes later, by the Mexican sensation Chicharito, and in the closing minutes, Giggs showed how the sport is played. Somebody dumped a ball down the left side, historically a chance for Giggs to take off. But in his maturity, he performed a delightful feint toward the goal, and with balletic precision reversed course and escorted the ball back toward midfield, killing time, killing hope. Footwork. Pace. Brains. Hardly anybody does it better these days, and certainly not as a virtual part-timer.

As the perfect partner for the intense Wayne Rooney, Giggs set up both goals in the 2-1 clincher over Chelsea in the Champions League quarterfinal. But the best moment was in the away portion April 6, when he took a beautiful pass from Michael Carrick, beat his defender with the first touch and then crossed the ball, on a backward angle, through sets of moving legs, to Rooney, who tapped it home.

“He’s just incredible, a unique person and player,” Ferguson said after that round, as quoted in The Express Tribune. Ferguson added: “He’s lucky in the sense that he’s got the physique that doesn’t carry any weight. He’s also got fantastic balance; he has never lost that.”

The manager concluded: “And he looks after himself — he has to. To get to 37 years of age, there must be a tremendous sacrifice to do that.”

It was Ferguson who suggested dropping Giggs back to keep him active, but it was Giggs who did it. Lately, Giggs has been talking of retiring after this season. If Manchester United gets past Schalke, it will play the winner of the Barcelona-Real Madrid game in a single-match final May 28 at the home base of English soccer, Wembley.

That would be one way to close out a career — unless Giggs is so fascinated with life as an offensive midfielder that he considers it a whole new career, worth exploring and expanding.

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