In recent times, the subject of age has once again become a big issue in our football following the large number of supposedly youngsters failing to make the Golden Eaglets due to issues over their ages. Here, Tunde Sulaiman takes a look at how the problem has not only grown but has subsequently also affected the Super Eagles
After running the World Cup for more than four decades, world football governing body, FIFA, in the mid-70s, decided to broaden the universal appeal of the competition by introducing an age-grade version of the tournament.
The brain child of the then President, late Dr. Joao Havelange of Brazil, it was hoped that the move would fast-track the development of the game through the discovery of talented youngsters who will then be groomed into senior players.
In 1977, the North African nation of Tunisia played host to the very first global football competition dedicated exclusively to players who will not be more than 20 years of age at the time the event takes place.
And Eighty-eight nations took part in the qualifying campaign for the tournament in which 16 teams eventually making it to the North Africa, where the former Soviet Union emerged inaugural champions.
Afterwards the ‘Technical Study Report on the FIFA World Youth Tournament’ noted: “People can participate recreationally throughout their lives in a number of sports, but vigorous competitive sport is challenge for youth, demanding peaks of strength, speed, endurance and skill and special qualities of perseverance and determination.
“World champions emerge in some sports in their early years. In team games such as soccer, where both fitness and skill are needed, players’ tend to have their best years of performance in their twenties, though they can reveal high potential around the ages of 17, 18 and 19 years. Occasionally, a player of exceptional talent establishes himself in his national team by this age.”
Going further, the document pointed to the direction where FIFA under its third world president was heading to when it said: “The future standards of the game of soccer depend upon the upbringing of the young, the extent and quality of training, development of natural skill, increasing knowledge of the game and the general pattern of behaviour in competition.
“There is great value, therefore, in international competition for youth to test out ability and provide experience.”
On the strengthen of the acceptability of the U20 event, FIFA eight years later decided to take a gamble by introducing a cadet tournament.
And thus, the first edition of the FIFA U-16 World Championship was held in 1985 in the Chinese cities of Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin, and Dalian from July 31, 1985, to August 11, 1985.
Many Nigerian football fans will still recall with glee how they stayed up late at night to follow the performances of our boys who had qualified with Congo and Guinea to represent the continent of Africa in Asia.
As at that time, the senior team had not yet made it to the World Cup proper which ensured that the nation was solidly behind the Eaglets.
Placed in Group C along with Saudi Arabia, Italy and Costa Rica, the Eaglets kicked off their campaign on July 31, 1985 with a narrow 1-0 win over Italy and followed it up with a goalless draw with the Saudis.
Nigeria’s U-16s (they were yet to be called “Golden Eaglets”) then rounded up their group game with a 3-0 whitewash of Costa Rica.
They then beat Hungary 3-1 in the quarter-finals to keep alive the dreams of millions of their country people to a possible historic showing at a FIFA-organised event.
On August 9 in Shanghai, Nigeria clashed in arguably their most difficult tie when they went up against fellow African qualifier, Guinea and it proved such with the Nigerian youngsters needing penalties to scrape through to the final.
Eighty-thousand fans crammed into the Workers’ Stadium, in Beijing to watch Nigeria make history by becoming the first African nation to win a FIFA event following a 2-0 win over Germany with Jonathan Akpoborie and Victor Igbinoba, our everlasting heroes.
It was this stunning victory that a very appreciative then Head-of-State, Ibrahim Babangida, conferred the title “Golden” on the Eaglets.
Following the Golden Eaglets’ stunning victory over Germany, a very impressed Pele, predicted that by the turn of the century, Nigeria would possibly be lifting the glittering FIFA World Cup trophy.
Sadly, the prediction of one of the true icons of the game has failed to materialise even though the Eaglets have gone on to win four more titles at the cadet level.
However, unlike Pele, who at 17 was already a national team star and winning the World Cup at Sweden’58, Nigeria’s own youngsters have not really made much impression with the Super Eagles.
Of the China’87 squad, it was only Akpoborie that had a decent run with the Eagles winning 13 caps and scoring four goals in the process. He also took part in the 1992 and 2000 Africa Cup of Nations where he won bronze and silver respectively.
But the stand out performance of players who had moved up the age-grade tournaments was at Atlanta’96 where the “Dream Team” was to become the first squad from the continent of Africa to win the football gold medal of an Olympic Games.
Four members of the epoch-making squad were graduates of the victorious Golden Eaglets to the Japan’93 U17 World Cup, and they were Celestine Babayaro, Nwankwo Kanu, Mobi Oparaku and Wilson Oruma; while Victor Ikpeba featured at the U17 World Cup in Scotland in 1989.
As mentioned earlier, Nigeria has won the cadet World Cup five times and yet the senior national team is yet to get beyond the second round of the senior version mainly because it has not really benefitted from the successes of the Eaglets or even the other age-grade FIFA tournament, the U20 World Cup, which is played by the Flying Eagles.
Incidentally, a number of other nations have benefitted immensely from the youth tournaments, which has thrown up house hold names over the years.
For instance, Diego Maradona was the star of Argentina’s U20 triumph in Japan in 1979 and went on to pilot the South American nation to the World Cup proper at Mexico’86, other notable names that were once junior players also include Oleg Salenko (Russia), Luis Figo (Portugal), Rui Costa (Portugal) and Holland’s Marco van Basten.
Brazil’s Ronaldinho was even in Nigeria where he took part in the U20 World Cup in 1999 and later was part of the Selecao that won their fifth World Cup at Korea/Japan 2002; Andre Iniesta, Fernando Torres, Ike Casila and Xavi were all former junior players that were later part of Spain’s victorious South Africa 2010 World Cup squad.
And yet former Nigerian cadet stars like Philip Osondu, who won the World Cup Golden Ball as best player of Canada’87 U17 World Cup, never made a splash at the senior level. Also in the same shoes is Macaulay Chrisantus, whose seven goals fetched him the Golden Boot in the Eaglets’ triumphant Korea 2007 U17 World Cup outing.
On the strength of his showing in South Korea, he was promptly snapped up by German side, Hamburg but was loaned out after two seasons in which he only scored four goals in 12 appearances. He is currently plying his trade in Finland with HJK Helsinki.
Ironically, Toni Kroos, who beat him to the Golden Ball and who won the Bronze Boot as the third highest scorer with five, is now a mainstay of both the German national team and Real Madrid.
Five years ago, the Golden Eaglets again triumphed at the FIFA U17 World Cup, which held in the UAE, with our own Kelechi Iheanacho winning the Golden Ball as the best player of the tournament.
On the strength of his showing in the Middle East that English Premier League champions, Manchester City came calling two years later.
However, in two years with the Citizens, the Nigerian never really set City alight and after 46 games and 12 goals was sold to mid table, Leicester City in 2017 £25 million. Even with the Foxes though, Iheanacho is struggling for playing time and has so far weighed in with only three goals in 25 matches.
The Golden Eaglets were again to throw up another star performer when they won their fifth U17 World Cup in Chile three years ago in the person of Victor Osimhen, who scored an amazing 10 goals – six more than second placed Johannes Eggestein of Germany.
However, despite his impressive pedigree with the Eaglets, the VfL Wolfsburg forward, who was also voted second best player in Chile, has so far only featured twice for the Super Eagles.
The situation is not any better with products of the next level of football in the country, the Flying Eagles with many of the stars struggling to make it at the final level of football – the senior team.
Just 13 years ago, the Flying Eagles dazzled at the U20 World Cup, which held in Holland, going all the way to the final where they narrowly lost to a Lionel Messi-inspired Argentina 2-1.
At the end of the competition, two Nigerian stars, John Mikel Obi and Taye Taiwo were voted the second and third best players behind the Argentine maestro.
On the strength of this, one would have expected that their futures would be very bright since they still had their best years ahead of them.
And this appeared to be the case when Mikel became embroiled in a tug-of-war between two of the Premier League’s biggest clubs, Chelsea and Manchester United, with the Blues finally securing his services in 2006 after FIFA wadded in.
Mikel was to go on to spend 11 seasons with the London outfit winning two titles, three FA Cups and the Champions League before packing his bags and heading to China to join Tianjin TEDA.
The former Plateau United midfielder, who is now Super Eagles skipper, has gone on to help Nigeria win the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations and the 2016 Summer Olympics Bronze Medal.
Impressive at least by Nigerian football standards, but miserly when compared with the man whom he finished second behind at Holland 2005.
Now 31, Messi has taken his football to another level, especially with his club, Barcelona, winning five World Footballer of the Year awards in addition to the Beijing 2018 Olympic football gold medal (of course once again getting the better of Mikel and Nigeria in the final).
Perhaps the only blot on a truly remarkable record has been his inability to get Argentina to the Promised Land of World Cup or Copa America victory.
So why have we failed spectacularly to fulfil Pele’s prediction? The answer can be found in the question marks often surrounding the ages of many of the players that regularly turn out for Nigeria at age-grade tournaments.
According to Wikipedia, the free encyclopaedia, “Age fraud is age fabrication or the use of false documentation to gain an advantage over opponents. In football, it is common amongst players belonging to nations where records are not easily verifiable.”
For FIFA: “Over-age players have been wrongly entered into various youth competitions, often benefiting from an unfair advantage due to their greater physical maturity compared to players of the proper age.”
And this is why it takes a very hard stance against such countries that are found guilty.
Sadly, Nigeria has been on the receiving end of such anger from Zurich when in 1989, our youth national teams were banned by FIFA for fielding over-age players in FIFA-organised youth tournaments. The birth dates of three players at the 1988 Olympics were different than the ones used by those players at previous tournaments. The resulting ban lasted for two years and Nigeria was also stripped of its right to host the 1991 FIFA World Youth Championship.
Finally, fed up by the rising incidences of age cheating, in 2009, FIFA made it mandatory the use of Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) for the FIFA Under-17 World Cup to help ascertain whether players are over age or not.
MRI is considered to be 99% accurate until the age of 17, after which it becomes harder for medical professionals to calculate a person’s age.
Professor Jiri Dvorak of FIFA admits: “The efficiency stops at 17 and it’s just pure coincidence that FIFA made their competition an under-17 event”. Every bone in the arm and leg has an end plate from which bones grow. When the growth is completed (usually around the age of 17-18), then this end plate disappears on the MRI scans.
Dvorak concedes that the scan results “will be unjust to 1% of all examined players”.
Professor of Community Health and Consultant Public Health Physician in College of Medicine University of Lagos (CMUL)/Lagos University Teaching Hospital (LUTH), Bayo Onajole also explained that the efficacy of MRI is not an exact science but is good to within six months.
Citing pregnancy as an example he said: “For instance, when you use ultrasound to determine pregnancy, they will tell you that the delivery can come two weeks before or two weeks after.”
However, the introduction of the MRI testing has not dissuaded Nigerian youngsters, often with the support of their parents, from trying to ‘gate crash” the Golden Eaglets team.
Only early last month, more than 26 out of 60 prospective players were dropped from the original screening for the team; while another batch of 12 reportedly failed when a second round of testing took place.
Since its introduction in 2009, at virtually every screening exercise to select the next set of Golden Eaglets a number of prospective Under 17 players have had to be sent out of camp after failing the test.
However, getting the exact ages of the players is not as easy as that as Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) Spokesman, Ademola Olajire explained.
“We have made it mandatory for all our U17 players to undergo the MRI test. And although there are six grades in the test; in order to make it as precise as possible once a player falls into grade four and five, we exclude him even though there is a leeway of one. We only take those whose MRI results fall into grade one to three.”
He also confirmed that even parents are now encouraging their wards to cheat.
“This is true. In some cases when we are in doubt, we call the player’s parents and more often than not they insist that their child is U17! So what can we do when the parent of the child in question insists he is within the age bracket?”
Olajire admitted that because of the possibility of their wards making a big move to securing a foreign club is often the reason why many of the parents back their children’s ages.
“There is clearly an economic reason behind it. Many of them (parents) now realise that their lives will improve tremendously should their son or daughter secure a move to a foreign club on the strength of a good showing at the World Cup.
“They have seen how such players like Kanu and Mikel and others have impacted on their families because they travelled abroad,” he explained.
In 2013 after losing twice to the Eaglets, coach of Mexico, Raul Gutierres questioned the true ages of the side that beat him.
“It’s the same with the Nigeria team, so with Mali, that beyond their physical development, decisions made by many of their players is not of an U17 player,” he told mediotempo.com.
Some years ago, former international, Adokiye Amiesimaka accused the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) of being complicit with age-cheats because it gave the nation a competitive advantage. He had what he considered proof that some players were overage but the NFF were not interested in taking his complaint seriously.
Before then, a former NFF President was even more damning. Anthony Kojo Williams in the 2010 BBC World service documentary. Africa Kicks, stated that the Nigerian Government were “afraid of change”.
He went on to say: “I don’t see Nigerian football getting out of the quagmire, the problem it’s in today is because of [corruption] is getting deeper and deeper and deeper. From time to time we get flashes where we do well in some competitions with average players and we celebrate. That was one of the issues I looked at; we can’t keep using overage players. We use over-age players for junior championships, I know that. Why not say it? It’s the truth. We always cheat. It’s a fact. When you cheat, you deprive the young stars that are supposed to play in these competitions their rights.”
However, it is not only Nigeria that has been caught red handed. A number of other countries both in Africa and beyond have also been found guilty and some of them include Cameroon, South Africa, Kenya and Senegal amongst others.
The Asian Football Confederation ejected DPR Korea, Tajikistan and Iraq from the 2008 AFC U-16 Championship after qualifying, and Cambodia, Macau, Bangladesh, Tajikistan, Bhutan and Kyrgyzstan were ejected from qualifying after being found to have fielded over-age players, while Yemen were ejected from the tournament for fielding an overage player.
The scourge has also hit the Americas with the scandal known as the Cachirules; all of Mexico’s international teams were banned for two years by FIFA from international competition in 1988 when the Under-20 national team was proven to consciously field several over aged players.
Unfortunately, considering the economic climate in Nigeria, it is unlikely that efforts to beat the system will stop any time soon.
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