Why age in African football remains major concern for scrutiny

Uganda's U17 Team
Uganda’s U17 Team

When it comes to age in football, there is always an anecdote in most footballing federations to consider.

It’s not like women preferring to always be younger than their actual age, in football terms its more about competition.

In Africa its presumed that age in football especially is not a norm in most African countries. Most African players are labeled to be cheats even when there is no evidence to prove it fitting. There is still a common cause of concern why it’s assumed to be that African footballers tend to be mistaken of not telling the right age.

The question then is raised, who is to blame? Is it the footballing bodies, the players, parents, football academies or the African culture? If one is to look for the right answer, I doubt it can be found on the global world-be it on internet, traditional chiefs, associations or anything of the sort .we then wonder if the quest for change is beyond us.

When growing up as young children, we are encouraged to tell the truth. We are brought up as Godly children with the fear of the lord no matter the religion.

Though all the efforts by our parents and the community at large, we tend to have an obscure conviction on what is ought to be done. Age in the modern footballing world has become a concern not for only the African continent but the world as a whole. It’s mostly common in sports and generally being witnessed in most athletes’ who are being convicted of lying about their age.

It’s like cancer which keeps eating up a human being till its leads to death. It’s a devil we live with and one which needs to be handled carefully.

We need support in the societies we live in with emphasis on the systems to have better image in sports.

Sport is one of the leading ventures which have put the African continent on the market in the world and caution needs to be taken when handling age in sports. It’s a global foul eating up the adored games enjoyed by majority of people in the world.

Uganda being one of the low developing countries, it needs to create systems which ensure age cases are in oblivion.

There are has been many instances which have aroused the call for better systems to rectify this.

Ugandan football in particular has been a victim of age cases and poor organization leading to disqualification in major competitions.

The recent instance saw the Rwanda Football Federation (FERWAFA) petitioning the Confederation of African Football (CAF) to take action against Uganda over fielding a player with double identity during the Africa Under-20 Cup of Nations first round matches between the two countries. In the petition; FERWAFA alleged that during the first leg played in Kigali and the return leg in Kampala, Uganda fielded Vipers Sports Club goalkeeper James Aheebwa whose identity was questionable.

Vipers Sports Club,-goal keeper James Aheebwa who had two different identities on his club license and national passport
Uganda Hippos and Vipers Sports Club goal keeper James Aheebwa who had two different identities on his club license and national passport led to the disqualification of Uganda in the ongoing Africa U-20 Cup of Nations qualifiers.

FERWAFA indicated that Aheebwa’s CAF Champions License with Viper Sports Club specifies that he was born on March 27, 1997, while according to his passport used in the U-20 qualifier against Rwanda; he was born on May 19, 1998. FERWAFA argued that this was against the CAF Under-20 rules.

This was blemish on the side of the Federation of Uganda Football Association (FUFA) who ought to have avoided such eventualities.It shows there are poor systems in place coupled with inadequate organization in the footballing body.

FUFA being a major governing body with qualified personnel should not be treated to such incompetence in the organization.

There are rules and regulations which are clearly stated to avoid such uncalled for occurrence.

Article 46 of CAF U-20 regulations states that each player must possess a passport containing his photo and giving the full particulars of the player’s age (day, month and year of birth)…. a player who does not have a passport issued by the competent authorities, shall not be authorized to participate in the U-20 Africa Cup of Nations.

It adds in case of a junior player participating in CAF Inter- Club competitions, he will not be eligible to participate in the U-20 Africa Cup of Nations if the date of birth indicated in his license is different from the one indicated on his passport…

The regulations are there but it begs a question of what should be done to guide bodies like FUFA. Systems and better organization seems the way forward rather than just regulations to have order in governance especially in Africa and Ugandan football to be specific.

It’s a broader painting on the African continent generally because such instances show ineptitude.

Match officials who handled both qualifiers were also at fault as they didn’t ensure enforcement of a section in chapter 21 (list of players), article 47 which states that the commissioner and the referee must forbid any player on the list that does not conform to the standards of qualification of the competition from participation in the match, as was stated by FERWAFA.

The CAF Appeals Committee tribunal ruled in favor of Rwanda leading to the disqualifying of Uganda from the ongoing Africa U-20 Cup of Nations qualifiers for using an illegible player.

Uganda Hippos had eliminated Rwanda wasps with a 2-1 win and 3-2 on aggregate booking a position to face Egypt in the next phase but this was nullified.

Uganda Hippos’ squad
Uganda Hippos’ squad that played against Rwanda Wasps in the Africa U-20 Cup of Nations qualifiers

Rwanda was ruled legible to take on Egypt in the last stage of qualification which is scheduled next year in Zambia.

Federation of Uganda Football Association (FUFA) Media Officer Ahmed Hussein Confirmed a receipt of CAF Communique on U-20 disqualification

The Uganda Football Association (FA) acting president, Darius Mugoye told Xinhua that CAF ruled in favour of Rwanda according to the evidence presented but this showed poor organization on the side of the federation.

In 2010, Uganda was also banned from the Africa U-17 Championship qualifiers after using overage players in a 3-1 aggregate win over Zambia in April.

Other countries involved in such scenario is Kenya which fielded over age players in the first round first leg- clash away to Sudan on Sunday 3 April,2016.
The report states;“The U20 Kenyan National team is disqualified from the preliminaries of the AFCON U20- Zambia 2017 and the U20 Sudan National team is qualified to the next round,” a source from the Confederation of African Football ( CAF) revealed.

According to John McAuley of the national.ae in his article Age cheaters are left with the spoiled, he points out numerous instances of failed age-tests.

A curious case of Abuchi Obinwa, a youngster who was meant to represent Nigeria at the Fifa under 17 World Cup failing age-tests in 2013 remains present due to profound revelations .

This came after the use of a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan which deemed he was too old to compete in U17 football, despite the player producing documentation to prove otherwise.

The use of a magnetic resonance testing (MRI) to determine a player’s age, dates to 2003 when Fifa began to investigate the use of biological markers for age determination after being requested to be done  by numerous member associations according to thenational.ae

It reveals that growth plates in the bones of the human skeleton are open during growth and closed at different times with increasing age and maturity. X-ray images of the growth plate of the left wrist were used for decades in paediatrics, and court, to determine age.However, because of concerns regarding the exposure to radiation in the use of X-rays in screening, Fifa’s Medical Assessment and Research Centre (F-Marc) suggested using MRI exams that could also provide detailed images and better contrast between body tissues.

F-Marc performed MRI wrist scans of more than 500 players of different ethnic origins, between the ages of 14 and 19, with confirmed birth certificates.

A six-point system was devised to grade the fusion of the growth plate.

Typically, complete fusion is unlikely to occur prior to 17 years of age, with accuracy at greater than 99 per cent.

So, if MRI indicates complete fusion of a player’s wrist, it is 99 per cent certain the player is older than 17. If a player registers a Grade 6, they are considered older than 17.

“MRI of the wrist is a simple, reliable, valid and non-invasive method of age determination in young male football players,” said Jiri Dvorak, the F-Marc chairman.

“We can identify overage players at U17 competitions at no risk to the individual. This is of considerable help both to member associations and Fifa.”

While nothing suggested Obinwa deliberately conspired to deceive, his case was familiar.

Since the implementation of the magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan by Fifa in 2009, there have been numerous instances of failed age tests, in particular African sides being marked as repeated offenders.

There is increased suspicion of Africans which doesn’t set a good precedence in the sporting world.

This has led to indifference in labeling of age with the most hypothetical being referred to as cancer.

“Age cheating has become a cancer to African football,” an Egyptian FA official was quoted as saying by several Africa media sources ahead of the 2009 U17 World Cup.

“Countries like Nigeria, Ghana and Cameroon were fond of fielding overage players in international youth tournaments. Age cheating is destroying football development in Africa.”

More instances are in full flow and this is threatening to rescind football development in Africa and especially in East African countries like Uganda and Kenya which are  among the culprits.

In 2003, Kenya’s government dissolved their national U17 team when players admitted they were over age.

Six years later, as Nigeria prepared to host the U17 World Cup; they dropped 15 members of their squad following testing. In the aftermath, a former Nigerian international claimed in a newspaper column that Fortune Chukwudi, then the side’s captain, was 25 years old.

Soon after came confirmation that Gambia omitted 11 of the 18 players who had helped them triumph at the African U17 Championship a few months previously.

The Confederation of African Football (CAF) ordered of all countries involved in qualifying to undergo testing and  players from Ghana’s U17s,Nigeria, Republic of Congo and Ivory Coast – were excluded from participating.

“Many, if not all African countries ‘cheat’ with the age of their youth players,”

Arnold Pannenborg, a Dutch journalist and respected commentator on African football, noted. “We don’t have to pretend it doesn’t happen, because, really, it does.And a lot, too”.

According to vanguardngr, Former Mexico U-17 coach, Raul Gutierrez accused the Nigerian wonder-kids of doing things no real U-17 player could do with the ball in the 2015 FIFA U-17 World Cup in Chile.

Gutiérrez was in charge when the 2013 set of Eaglets beat Mexico twice en-route to being crowned champions in the United Arab Emirates.

Nigeria’s Golden Eaglets that made history in Dubai by winning the FIFA Under-17 World Cup for the fourth time after humiliating Mexico 3-0 in the final in 2013

Gutiérrez  speculated that the Eaglets and Mali’s physical attributes and coupled with their  decisions making were not expected of true U-17 players.

“It’s the same with the Nigeria team, so with Mali, that beyond their physical development, decisions made by many of their players are not of an U-17 player’’ the coach told mediotiempo.com.

World problem not limited to Africa

Brazil won the 2003 World Youth Cup – for players of 20 and under – with a team that included a 25-year-old.

Three years after their success, it was revealed that defensive midfielder Carlos Alberto had given the wrong age according to BBC SPORTS

Carlos Alberto (right) was part of the Brazil squad that won the 2003 World Youth Cup
Carlos Alberto (right) was part of the Brazil squad that won the 2003 World Youth Cup

Cases like this  are not unfamiliar in other South American countries.

Akpoborie said:

“It isn’t just in Africa, I am sure. You know there have been problems in South America but you also know the problem in Africa is really big.

“Maybe it is easy in Africa for players to get away with it – or it used to be. There are not many places in the world where it is so easy as it is in Africa. Efforts are being made to stop it.”

BBC has more details concerning the problem of Age in football emphasizing the need to find solutions to curb it.

In November 2012, Australia and Saudi Arabia lodged official complaints over suspicions that the Syrian Under-19 team, competing at the Asian Championships, included over-age players.

John Boultbee, the head of the Football Federation Australia’s International Department, told BBC World Football back then that the problem was “endemic” and that more needed to be done.

He said: “A few days before the competition began, we were provided with the registration list and the Syrian team featured six players born on 1 January 1 1993 – the last day you could be born to be eligible. The whole team had January birth dates.”

African football journalist Oluwashina Okeleji cites personal ambition, pressure for success and ease in falsifying your age as factors for it.

“It is very difficult for young players to go abroad and play and it can take so long that they are too old when they are noticed, so they have to reduce their age, maybe by 10 years,” he said.

“Another factor is the pressure on the under-17 and under-20 sides for success. Some of these coaches are forced to bring in these players over age.”

Junior Binyam, the Confederation for African Football’s (Caf) media director, agrees age fraud is a problem in Africa because countries do not have a reliable database to track ages.

He said: “It is easy in many countries to change ages or ‘amend’ those registers. It is not rare to find people with more than one birth certificate.

“In some cases, when the player changes identity, he can, most of the time, be registered as a new player. The fraud on ages then affect the development programs if the players involved in an age category are not really from that category.”

With a shortage of legal documents to clarify ages in Africa, Koufie believes confusion could be one reason for so-called age fraud.
The shocking evidence concerning age on African continent is detrimental and needs a solution.

Countries like Nigeria with a considerable achievement at the age-group level has never been replicated it to the senior side on the world stage.

There must be an overall change in the mentality and the organization of different bodies if the issue of age is to be resolved.

The use of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) which was introduced by Fifa in 2009 for the Under-17 World Cup in Nigeria to help work out whether players were over age or not will also control the issue of Age.