It’s been a problem for ages, but Cameroonian football great Samuel Eto’o seems determined to eradicate it.
Cameroon sealed qualification for the 2023 Africa Cup of Nations under-17 tournament with a 2-0 win over the Republic of Congo on January 15, but the winning team was not recognized as initially selected. the story.
That’s because 21 players from the original 30-man squad were disqualified after failing age tests after an MRI scan to determine bone age, BBC Sport reports.
To make matters worse, 11 of the substitutes called up to the squad failed the trials and were unable to play in the qualifiers.
The expulsion of these players follows the decision of Eto’o, president of the Cameroon Football Association (FECAFOOT), to test the players ahead of the competition.
“These players rely on football and most of them come from poor families and backgrounds,” Cameroonian journalist Giovanni Vanneh told CNN Sports explaining why the players involved tried to falsify their ages.
“They want to age less so they can play longer and make more money.”
Issues related to age verification are not new to the world of football.
Sir Alf Ramsey, the manager who led England to their only World Cup in 1966, changed his birthday. According to the Morning Star newspaper, he was so that he could get a professional contract as a player after World War II.
Brazil’s Carlos Alberto was 25 when he won the 2003 Under-20 World Cup with Brazil.
According to ESPN, the player admitted in a televised interview that he reduced his age because: “It was an opportunity for me to live … I was hungry.”
However, the issue of player age remains particularly pressing in some countries, such as Cameroon and its neighbours.
It is known that the former “Newcastle United” and the current Marseille and Congo national team defender Chancel Mbemba has been checked by the world governing body FIFA that he has four different birthdays.
In an interview with The Mirror, he said he had undergone bone tests to verify his age and was born on the date set by FIFA’s disciplinary committee.
Ghana and Nigeria, who have won 7 FIFA Under-17 World Cups between them, have been scrutinized for the age of their trophy-winning teams.
Some observers question the success the teams have achieved at youth level, but has yet to be replicated at the senior level of international football.
“Unfortunately, so far we’ve had coaches trying to play for the podium without thinking about the idea of developing the U-17 or U-19 team,” Gomesgani Zazaka, head of competitions. and communication in the Malawi Federation, CNN Sport reported.
“I was the star of the under-17 world championships. But what happens next? How do we translate our under-17 success to the national team? These are the questions we need to ask ourselves as Africa,” added Zakazaka.
Ivorian journalist Mamadou Gaye further told CNN Sports: “I would say it would be fair for Africa to return all the trophies to FIFA. [the seven U-17 titles won by Nigeria and Ghana]for it is plain and evident that it was won by fraud.
Africa’s love affair with football is no secret.
At Qatar 2022, fans in Morocco and Tunisia felt every match was in Casablanca or Tunisia. Fans from Ghana, Cameroon and Senegal, though there were plenty at every match, brought color and noise to the tournament unmatched by almost any other nation.
However, unlike competing countries in Europe and South America, most African nations lack the talent pipelines and organizational structure to develop all those youngsters vying to become the next Sadio Mane or Mohamed Salah.
The sport, usually idealized for its meritocratic values, is often a matter of luck in Africa, where players must take advantage of few and far between opportunities to pursue a professional career.
Because of this lack of opportunity and lack of social mobility, many young children and their families believe that football is the ticket out of poverty.
This desperation and lack of opportunity are grounds for exploitation by players, be it coaches, administrators, agents, or even parents willing to pay for a child’s talent.
This is even more difficult in a country like Cameroon, where a career in domestic football does not provide a reliable source of income, something Eto’o is trying to change by introducing a minimum wage for players playing in domestic leagues.
“[To name] The financially stable clubs in Cameroon at the moment, I can only mention two,” says Vanne, who explains that most clubs in the country do not have a guaranteed regular salary for players.
A lack of opportunities at home and the window to move to lucrative contracts is narrowing as clubs across Europe look for potential stars of the future at an ever-younger age. It looks more attractive to the national team and clubs.
At the same time administrators are grappling with problematic record-keeping — not just in soccer, but in society at large — Zazakaka says he has first-hand experience of the issue in his home country.
Like Cameroon, Malawi recently conducted tests on their players ahead of the qualifiers, forcing them to drop some from their squad, Times Group Malawi reported.
“It’s still difficult because we’ve been using a manual registration and paperwork process in this part of Africa,” Zakazaka told CNN Sports.
“Another critical issue was the lack of a birth certificate. “You have a lot of kids playing football without birth certificates.”
While countries such as Cameroon and Malawi have begun to accept digital birth certificates, football administrators in Africa still face challenges in confirming a player’s date of birth.
The continent’s governing body for football – the Confederation of African Football (CAF) – has adopted the use of an MRI scanner as a way to verify a player’s age.
An MRI scans a player’s wrist to check the growth plate before grading it from one to six.
Grade six means a player’s growth plate has fully fused to the bone, which usually happens around age 18 or 19.
However, Thulani Ngwenya, a member of CAF’s medical committee and part of CAF’s implementation of MRI scans, explained that the MRI technique is not an accurate age estimate of someone.
“It’s not the age and the protocol, but it’s the eligibility protocol, which are two different things,” Ngwenya told CNN Sports.
“It melts at 18 and 19, but it’s not set in stone to see.”
CAF recognizes that players over the age of 17 may still be considered eligible to play. The scan only works for boys because the development of the wrist growth plate is different for girls.
Nevertheless, this MRI guide works as a methodology to check the fitness of the players and provides a clear line of what can be done.
And it was done. If a player fails CAF’s qualifying test in a competition, the entire team will be disqualified.
Chad was banned from the qualifiers in Cameroon, while the DRC were forced out of the tournament after players failed their tests at home and were unable to find replacements in time, BBC Sport reported earlier this month.
Having tested their players long before the qualifiers, Cameroon were able to replace those who were ineligible for the qualifiers.
Thanks to Chad’s disqualification and DRC’s withdrawal due to disqualified players, Cameroon needed to beat Central African Republic and Republic of Congo to qualify for the Under-17 AFCON.
“For Cameroon to be exposed, it sends a very strong message to the youth structures in Cameroon,” says Zakazaka.
“It’s no longer business as usual, selecting players to be judged according to the documents they bring.”
Journalist Gaye says: “When we expose it, it will be a lesson for everyone. And that’s a clear and powerful message to all agents, to all parents, to everyone involved in the game. don’t try to cheat. If you try to cheat, we will not only expel you, we will ban you.”
Countries such as Cameroon continue to digitize birth records so they can use the FIFA Connect database, allowing federations to register players with a unique FIFA ID code that acts as a digital passport.
While there is no clear mechanism to verify a player’s age at registration, once they are logged into FIFA Connect, their data cannot be changed, allowing federations such as Cameroon and Malawi to track every game. a player in their ecosystem.
The adoption of FIFA’s continent, the continent’s growing adoption of digital record keeping and federation presidents like Eto’o mean the days of ‘cheating age’ are numbered.
“The bill stops with us as federations because we are putting structures in place to ensure that there is nothing to do with fraud in the first place,” says Zakazaka.
“[But] I would say there is light at the end of the tunnel these days.