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An age of change?

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Piers Edwards | 15:28 UK time, Friday, 21 January 2011

Over the years, Michael Essien, John Obi Mikel, Sammy Kuffuor, Alex Song, Mahamadou Diarra, Seydou Keita and others have used the African Under-17 finals as a springboard to eventual contracts with the likes of Chelsea, Bayern, Arsenal, Real Madrid and Barcelona.

Yet hundreds of others have never progressed from the potential shown at age group events to reach the top nor even enjoyed a professional career, and countless African football fans will tell you that the thorny issue of age-cheating is largely to blame.

In some cases, careers have peaked before they're properly began but the much-maligned Confederation of African Football (Caf) is trying to address this issue at this month's U17 finals in Rwanda - where they've age-tested all the players.

Two years ago, Caf was stung by the run-up to the U17 World Cup in Nigeria where Fifa were introducing MRI scans for the first time. Wary of the tests, Africa's competitors decided it might be wise to do their own before the finals - and the results were damning.

Rwanda fans celebrate their team's success

Host nation Rwanda are through to the final of the U17 finals. Photo: AFP

A handful of The Gambia's African championship-winning side were found to be over age, while the host nation was forced to drop over a dozen players from its proposed squad.

For seasoned observers of Nigerian football, this wouldn't have been much of a surprise and we can probably include David Moyes among those, with the Everton coach once breezily declaring of Yakubu "He's only 25, albeit a Nigerian 25" (even if he later pointed out he had no real concerns).

Many knew what he meant - and a brief perusal of the chat boards on African websites leaves you in no doubt as to the pervasive cynicism surrounding the issue on the continent. But then, these fans have abundant history to refer to.

While countless players, including some of the continent's biggest stars, have found their real ages to be the subject of debate, coaches who have lost to African opponents at youth finals have been less circumspect - their comments not always amounting to sour grapes.

"The players of Ghana cannot be the age they claim," said one after the Africans' 1995 success. "Fifa must act. Fair play means respecting the regulations, not only on the field, but off it as well."

Eventually the Ghanaian FA itself came to agree, insisting upon using accurate ages in youth tournaments from the mid-noughties with their current chairman admitting that junior success hadn't previously translated to the seniors "because players who were supposedly 22-23 were already past their prime."

In the late 1980s, Ghana were disqualified from an African youth finals after being caught using over-age players. Last year, the fruits of their new policy burst forth as a side built upon genuine U20 world champions came closer to the World Cup semis than any African side.

In case you missed it, age falsifying happens for two main reasons.

Firstly, a simple desire to cheat. And this is a global problem with teams from the Americas, Asia, Europe and the Middle East having all been caught out over time. World Cup regulars Mexico even had to sit out the 1990 finals after receiving a two-year Fifa ban for using over-age players in a regional U20 championships.

The second reason, which is more specific to Africa, is an attempt to step up in the world game. With European scouts hunting young talent, the liberal stance argues that lying about one's age is a way of levelling the challenges most Africans face in rising to the top - such as insufficient nutrition, facilities, coaching levels, kit etc.

The issue is rife because there have been, and still are, many African areas where birth records aren't kept, so allowing the unscrupulous to exploit this, and it's interesting to note that such a shortage of documentation has affected one of Europe's top leagues in the past.

Despite a ban on foreigners, over a hundred South Americans played in Spain during the 1960s and 1970s. How so? Because the thousands of birth certificates lost or destroyed during the 1936-39 Civil War meant authorities were unable to refute the claims of those professing Spanish parentage (even if some were scarcely credible).

Now Caf is finally addressing the issue, not too long after Fifa created an accurate test, and they've proudly screened every player in Rwanda (where Chelsea hopeful Bertrand Traore has led Burkina Faso to Saturday's final) without finding any failures.

And it's critical to start at U17 level since that is the age when MRI wrist scans work at a 99% success rate, to the delight of Fifa's Chief Medical Officer. "The efficiency stops at 17 and it's just pure coincidence that Fifa made their competition an under-17 event," chuckles Professor Jiri Dvorak.

Even though Caf will only be screening a tiny, albeit high-grade, slice of the continent's next generation of players, the body has to be commended for setting the right tone - and many European clubs will wholeheartedly agree.

Dvorak points out that the impact of failed tests can have dramatic consequences. When the Asian confederation first adopted MRI scans at U17 level four years ago, nearly a third of those tested were caught out - two years ago, not one squad member was found guilty.

After the embarrassment of the 2009 tests, it's now effectively the same in Africa and even though the net Caf has cast is full of holes - since only eight of its 53 members are competing in Rwanda - the very fact that the continent's federations know they must select the correct players should have a knock-on effect.

Baby steps these may be, but one wonders where they will end?

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    Fascinating article. What is it exactly that the MRI tests in the wrist (and how could the results be misunderstood re: asia 2009)?
    It'll be interesting to see how this affects the talent drain from the african continent to Europe. Do you think that because of issues like poor nutrition etc. that stricter screening processes will limit the number of players coming to the EPL from Africa because of the English preference for physically larger/more powerful players?

  • Comment number 2.

    Interesting read I remember Harry Redknapp also making a similar comments to Moyeses about Kanu. I agree entirely with the second point on why African players lie about their ages.

    Most of them use the U17 and U20 national teams as a springboard to Europe and as majority of them are way past these ages they end up lying just to secure a place in the team. However, I strongly beleive there are still young promising talents in Africa that are within this age bracket capable of winning these competitions.

    One other issue in Africa is parents cannot afford to take the risk of allowing young kids between the ages of 14 - 17 to platy football full time. Most kids finish high school before concentrating on football and by that time they are already 17 or 18.

    I was born in Africa (Nigeria) and because I was brought up in a middle class educated home I had to go to school, I always wanted to become a footballer but my mum been a prinicpal of a secondary school will beat be with stick if I fail to do extra reading and studying during weekends even though I did extra studies all through the week. She beleived education was the only guarantee of success and that is still sunk in the head of most parents in Afrcia. Though I am an engineer today after studying for almost 18years of my life I beleive my talent was to play football as I was representing my high school when I was as young as 10 but I did not get the right and adequate support to achieve my aim.

    When I see parents drive there kids as far as 10mile to play football in the UK today I smile and wish I enjoyed the same support. Millions of young children with unbelievable talents in Afrcia are forced to go to school or work for their food and water. Where will African football be today if African kids do not have to worry about the basic amenities of life or even a good football to kick around instead of making a football out of paper bags rolled in a sock?

  • Comment number 3.


    Who cares! Even Roger Miller at the age of 70yrs was able to do the business on the pitch at Italian '90.

  • Comment number 4.

    3. At 05:30am on 22 Jan 2011, arisen10 wrote:

    Who cares! Even Roger Miller at the age of 70yrs was able to do the business on the pitch at Italian '90.
    ------------------------------------------------------------------------

    I suppose you wouldn't care then if lets say Northern Ireland doped their players to achieve super human levels of strength and stamina and won the World Cup? (purely for argument sake, I am not implying or accusing that they are involved in a such a practice).

    Because in essence that is the issue with fielding overage players in a youth tournament, especially under 17s. The older men have more strength, conditioning and match experience than the boys simply due to age and time spent on the pitch.

  • Comment number 5.

    No mention of the 62 year old Kanu!?

    But it is great to see that finally CAF are doing something to stop this. Hopefully they will reap benefits soon.

  • Comment number 6.

    Samslily - the MRI works by scanning bone growth in the wrist. I am reliably informed by Professor Dvorak, one of the test’s pioneers, that every bone in the arm and leg has an end plate from which bones grow. “When the growth is completed, then this end plate disappears on the MRI scans – and in nature itself,” he says.

    From their research to determine the accuracy of the tests, using players whose ages they were sure of, Fifa found that the growth hadn’t been completed in 99% of those tested under the age of 17 (‘so we will be unjust to 1% of all examined players,’ says Dvorak) – but a solid 100% for those under the age of 16. So that's how it works.

    As for the results being misunderstood re. Asia 2009, I don’t quite follow…

  • Comment number 7.


    Cheshire Indian did I hear you say Northern Ireland? You make me laugh.... I thought you are under United Kingdom in Olympics? Now you want to play football as a country -Absolutely madness!

  • Comment number 8.

    In the late 1980s, Ghana were disqualified from an African youth finals after being caught using over-age players. Last year, the fruits of their new policy burst forth as a side built upon genuine U20 world champions came closer to the World Cup semis than any African side.
    -------------------------------------------------------------------------
    Are you really sure that they are "genuine U20 world champions". Although I am a Ghanaian, I think most of us do not believe that.

    Other than that i do agree with the blog 100%

  • Comment number 9.

    Dunno about the age thing but when Obafemi Martins came to Inter as a supposedly 17 year old, even I, from the comfort of my couch could see that he was not 17. But then, who cares? Do you want a good football player or a player of a certain age? It could be that African players mature a little later than European players, and can have longer careers than their European counterparts.

  • Comment number 10.

    8. At 8:53pm on 22 Jan 2011, kngjrdn wrote:

    In the late 1980s, Ghana were disqualified from an African youth finals after being caught using over-age players. Last year, the fruits of their new policy burst forth as a side built upon genuine U20 world champions came closer to the World Cup semis than any African side.
    -------------------------------------------------------------------------
    Are you really sure that they are "genuine U20 world champions". Although I am a Ghanaian, I think most of us do not believe that.

    Other than that i do agree with the blog 100%
    -----------------------------------------------------
    as a Hungarian I had the same feeling when Adiyah and Co were playing in the semifinal vs my team.:-)

    however, I supported Ghana (vs Uruguay) in the later WC quarterfinal and at the penalties Adiyah seemed to be 20 years old when not converting...

    btw. great blog!

  • Comment number 11.

    Hail science.

  • Comment number 12.

    I still have my doubts about the efficiency of the MRI scans because there are still a few dodgy players I see who, being African myself, I suspect have beaten the technology.

    For me the tragedy of the phenomenon of age cheating is that it puts the development of young African footballers on slow motion when it really matters. Talents that are between 10 - 16 years are routinely overlooked while officials focus on 24-year-old U-17 players.

    With the right technology youth development will take off at the appropriate time, which can only be fantastic for African football on the long run.

  • Comment number 13.

    Wasn't there an age issue over the chinese gymanstic team in the last olympics?

  • Comment number 14.

    Intriguing article! Just out of curiousity, exactly how old is Kanu, Yakubu and Martins? Kanu looked like he was already mid 30s when he played for Arsenal years back, surely he's mid 40s now :)
    I guess we'll never know until they write their memoirs after they retire...

    @ samslily:
    I don't really think that the screening process will limit the number of players coming to the EPL (or anywhere else), younger doesn't mean smaller...

  • Comment number 15.

    Unfortunately this is widespread- I suspect that Freddy Adu, who emigrated to the US from Ghana and was apparently playing MLS football when he was 14 (yeah right) is another.

 

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