Soc­cer age cheats: Lessons from Benin Re­pub­lic

The Punch - - OPINION -

UN­LIKE other African coun­tries play­ing games with age-cheat­ing, the foot­ball au­thor­i­ties in Benin Re­pub­lic have taken a gi­ant step to rid their coun­try of the du­bi­ous prac­tice. In a bold move that res­onated across the world, a court in Cotonou con­victed a group of youth play­ers and a top foot­ball ad­min­is­tra­tor for age-cheat­ing and fraud. In a con­ti­nent strug­gling with ex­is­ten­tial chal­lenges, Benin Re­pub­lic foot­ball fed­er­a­tion’s ex­am­ple rec­om­mends it­self to other gov­ern­ing bod­ies in Africa, es­pe­cially Nige­ria.

In one fell swoop, 10 ju­nior play­ers of the coun­try’s un­der-17 na­tional team were sen­tenced to a month-long jail term each a few days ago. They were found cul­pa­ble of fal­si­fy­ing their ages in last Septem­ber’s qual­i­fiers for the 2019 (U17) African Cup of Na­tions in Niger Re­pub­lic. All the teams were sub­jected to the Mag­netic Res­o­nance Imag­ing test to de­ter­mine their true ages. Not for the first time, those play­ers were found out, leav­ing the or­gan­is­ers no other choice but to ex­pel Benin from the tour­na­ment.

Benin’s land­mark ac­tion did not end there. An­jorin Moucharafou, the Benin FA pres­i­dent at the time of the scan­dal, was jailed for 12 months. Sadly, the coun­try is ac­cus­tomed to such scan­dals. On two oc­ca­sions, it was the butt of jokes when the In­ter­na­tional Foot­ball Fed­er­a­tion sus­pended it from foot­ball ac­tiv­i­ties over cheat­ing in 2004; in 2016, the ju­nior na­tional team was en­meshed in an­other age scan­dal. Benin’s cur­rent foot­ball fed­er­a­tion pres­i­dent, Mathurin de Cha­cus, who spear­headed the cleans­ing ef­fort, de­serves plau­dits for his re­form.

In con­trast to Benin’s re­pu­di­a­tion of the win-at-all-cost syn­drome, other African foot­ball fed­er­a­tions are bury­ing their heads in the sand. This is my­opic. Nige­ria, which has suf­fered hu­mil­i­a­tion be­cause of age-cheat­ing in the past, has re­fused to act. In the late 1980s, FIFA had banned Nige­ria from all in­ter­na­tional foot­ball fix­tures for two years af­ter find­ing that the dates of birth of three of the play­ers for its 1988 Olympics squad were dif­fer­ent from the ones sub­mit­ted by the same play­ers in pre­vi­ous tour­na­ments.

It was not an iso­lated case. In Nige­ria, of­fi­cials ha­bit­u­ally col­lude with the coaches and play­ers to have two dif­fer­ent ages – the real age and the “foot­ball age.” Just be­fore the 2017 FIFA U17 World Cup, Nige­ria sud­denly axed 15 squad mem­bers from the Golden Ea­glets when it learnt that the or­gan­is­ers would sub­ject play­ers to the MRI test. Yet, the fed­er­a­tion ig­nored the wil­ful prac­tice it is en­trench­ing to the detri­ment of its fu­ture.

A for­mer Golden Ea­glets coach, Em­manuel Amuneke, con­fessed that he was un­der se­vere pres­sure dur­ing his ten­ure over age-cheat­ing. He re­called: “I know what I ex­pe­ri­enced when I was coach­ing in the U17s. I was pub­lic en­emy num­ber one; even the peo­ple in the North, a lot of them be­lieve I am an en­emy to them. But none have asked the play­ers that did not make it, what re­ally war­ranted their not mak­ing it. Most of these play­ers had se­ri­ous (age) is­sues; some even have five pass­ports.”

Scan­dalously, Nige­ria suf­fered hu­mil­i­a­tion in 2017 when 23 mem­bers of its U17 squad to the AFCON tour­na­ment in Rwanda were dis­qual­i­fied af­ter MRI test­ing. The out­come was that Nige­ria failed to qual­ify for the tour­na­ment. This in­tri­cate con­spir­acy is per­haps be­ing sus­tained by the tri­umphs of the age-grade teams. Start­ing with the in­au­gu­ral con­test in 1985 in China, the Golden Ea­glets have won five FIFA U17 tour­na­ments, which is the best record glob­ally. The Ea­glets and their Fly­ing Ea­gles (U21) coun­ter­parts turn in amaz­ing per­for­mances in these in­ter­na­tional tour­na­ments on a reg­u­lar ba­sis, mak­ing pun­dits to be­lieve Nige­ria is a foot­ball gi­ant.

That it is not is per­haps be­cause of the preva­lent age fal­si­fi­ca­tion cul­ture in the sport. Af­ter the FIFA U17 World Cup in Canada in 1987, in which the Ea­glets came sec­ond be­hind Rus­sia, top Eu­ro­pean clubs snapped up some of the Nige­rian stars in the tour­na­ment. To their con­ster­na­tion, these play­ers drifted out of the game. Es­sen­tially, Nige­rian play­ers, who shine brightly in these un­der-age com­pe­ti­tions, largely be­cause they are pit­ted against their ju­niors, fail to make the grades in Europe. Thus, Nige­ria wal­lows in its ephemeral vic­tory, be­cause, even­tu­ally, these play­ers fade out of the lime­light at a time they should have moved up to the Su­per Ea­gles and be earn­ing mega bucks in top Eu­ro­pean foot­ball clubs. How de­press­ing!

How­ever, coun­tries that build their foot­ball on sound tenets are reap­ing the re­wards. In 2009, when Nige­ria hosted the FIFA U17 World Cup, Ney­mar, Casemiro, Philippe Coutinho and goal­keeper Alis­son Becker, rep­re­sented Brazil. They were all at the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Rus­sia with Brazil. All of them cur­rently play for top clubs in Europe, with Ney­mar of Paris Saint Ger­main emerg­ing the costli­est player in the world fol­low­ing his move to France from Spain in 2017 for £199.8 mil­lion. But the best legs from Nige­ria’s 2009 team are strug­gling at un­recog­nis­able clubs in Europe or are back at home af­ter fail­ing to find their feet.

Although Nige­ria won the tour­na­ment in 2007 in Korea, most of the play­ers who won the lau­rel then, are nowhere to be found to­day; con­versely, Toni Kroos, the Golden Ball win­ner, is still play­ing at the high­est level with Real Madrid of Spain, af­ter win­ning the World Cup with Ger­many in 2014. This ought to force a re­think here.

To max­imise the ben­e­fits of age-grade foot­ball, the Nige­ria Foot­ball Fed­er­a­tion and the gov­ern­ment should crack down on age-cheats. This means that when­ever Nige­ri­ans are cited for age-cheat­ing, all those in­volved must get the kind of treat­ment Benin vis­ited on its con­tin­gent to Niger Re­pub­lic. In a coun­try where cor­rup­tion is high and birth cer­tifi­cates are not worth the pa­per they are printed on, the NFF can engi­neer a par­a­digm shift through pun­ish­ment. The Nige­ria Im­mi­gra­tion Ser­vice must im­ple­ment fool-proof tech­nol­ogy to pre­vent any­one from ac­quir­ing mul­ti­ple pass­ports.

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