Over the years, I’ve been forced to develop a rather sceptical, hard-nosed attitude towards the achievements of particular African teams in FIFA’s Under-17 and Under-20 competitions, because some Cup ‘victories’ were certainly achieved by using over-aged players.
In an ‘off-the-record’ conversation I had with an ex-Nigerian player, who captained the ‘Golden Eaglets’ to one of their four Under-17 World Cup wins, he freely admitted to me – long after retiring from the game, of course – that he was certainly not a teenager when he played in the competition.
“I was 20 when I featured at the tournament,” he said.
But, even more interestingly, he argued that he was certainly not the worst case in the team that he played in.
“There was a colleague of mine that was several years older than me, married and with children, I think. And everyone knew it,” he argued.
And his is certainly not the only case that I know of, as a former chairman of the Nigerian FA can testify to.
Whilst still working as a full-time BBC World Service journalist, I discovered that there were official documents with two different dates of birth for a player that was set to feature at the 2005 Under-20 World Cup in the Netherlands.
After disclosing my discovery to the FA chairman, he ordered that the striker, currently in Russia’s top division, be dropped from the team, in order to prevent a scandal that could have led to a FIFA ban from youth competitions.
Before a few people with the condescending “Do you expect anything better from Africa?” mentality begin to snigger, cheating is certainly not restricted to the continent, as Brazil and Mexico, as well as countries in Asia, have been caught with their pants down.
But beyond the titillating tales of age-cheating, the recent triumph of Nigeria at the last U-17 World Cup in the UAE, beating Mexico 3-0 in the final, provides a chance to ponder whether FIFA’s age-grade competitions are serving the primary purpose for which they exist – to ensure that the global game has a streaming flow of young, exciting talent, whilst providing a platform for developing football nations to bridge the gap between themselves and their more established competitors at the senior level.
That, unfortunately, appears not to preoccupy the minds of a substantial number of African administrators, who are more concerned with winning international trophies at any cost, in order to justify their positions in the corridors of power.
Whilst the former Arsenal player Nwankwo Kanu and Chelsea’s Michael Essien are amongst several African players that benefitted from playing in FIFA’s age-grade competitions and went on to have flourishing careers at the top level, there are many more that have flattered to deceive at these tournaments.
The career of Macaulay Chrisantus, the Nigerian winner of the Golden Boot at the 2007 U-17 World Cup in South Korea, where the West Africans won their third title, serves as an example. And he is, by no means, an isolated case.
Expected to explode on to the European club scene with Bundesliga side Hamburg, which won a hard fought battle with rivals for his signature, Chrisantus has, inexplicably, not come close to reproducing the form he showed six years ago.
Unable to earn a regular first-team place at Hamburg, he went on unsuccessful loans spells at other German clubs, before ending up at Spanish second division side Las Palmas.
Compare Chrisantus’s fate with that of Manchester United goalkeeper David De Gea, his club mate Danny Welbeck and Aston Villa’s Christian Benteke, who featured for Spain, England and Belgium at the same 2007 tournament.
None won laurels in Korea, as their teams were eliminated early. But they have developed into players that will feature at the top level for years to come.
Some may argue that Chrisantus’s less than sterling career after Korea may have nothing to do with being an age cheat – which hasn’t been proven – but could be attributed to a lack of mental and physical fortitude to cope with the demands of top flight football, which could happen to any promising player.
Perhaps. But the recurring frequency with which several footballers across the continent, in a similar position to Chrisantus, share his career fate, only provides further credence to the suspicion that the ‘actual’ age of several players that have participated at the U-17 World Cup ensures their performance in it serves as the highlight of their careers, rather than heralding a glorious start.
FIFA’s decision to ratify the use of Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scans, detecting bone fusion in the wrist, which proves, supposedly with 99% accuracy, that a person is beyond the age of 17, ought to cut down on cheating at the tournament. I am assuming, of course, that FIFA will bite the bullet and introduce a rigorous random testing of players that feature at such tournaments, which ought to serve as a stern deterrent to countries that are determined to cheat.
Since deciding, in 2009, that the use of such medical information was reliable, such tests ought to be an integral part of procedures at the U-17 tournament.
But it is enlightened self interest, which is the stark, undeniable fact that cheating at youth tournaments is fatal to a country’s long-term development, that ought to serve as the greatest deterrent.
“There is a joke going round that we won this world title with perhaps the youngest set of U-17 players that we’ve ever had,” said a member of the executive committee of the Nigeria Football Federation, who, as you will understand, will remain in the shadows.
“No question, the issue of cheating is one that we must confront. If we are to present teams made up of players whose ages we can trust, we will have to develop players who are still in the school system, because anyone playing in an U-17 tournament should still be in education.
“That means our U-17 coaches have to do proper scouting for talent in schools and watch schoolboy competitions, which they are really not doing at the moment.
“They have to work harder to develop a pool of players that can serve as a long-term foundation for the future. And we, as a federation, must have a proper blueprint for the discovery and development of young players.”
There is no point in winning an U-17 or U-20 tournament, whilst their primary, long-term objective – the discovery and development of a nucleus of players, enabling a country to effectively compete at the World Cup finals and other senior competitions – is neglected or completely ignored.
Success at the top level must be built with the right blocks. And the use of short cuts is certainly not one of them.
Osasu Obayiuwana, a lawyer and BBC broadcaster, as well as the Associate Editor of NewAfrican magazine, is one of the world’s leading journalists on African football. His regular commentary on the state of the African game can also be read at footballisafrica.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Osasu is also a member of FIFA’s anti-discrimination task force.