It has been a problem for ages but Cameroonian football great Samuel Eto’o seems determined to eradicate it.
Cameroon sealed their qualification for the 2023 Africa Cup of Nations under-17 tournament with a 2-0 win over Republic of Congo on January 15, but the team that won the match ket was more unpredictable than initially selected for the competition. event
That’s because 21 players from the original 30-man squad were disqualified after failing age-eligibility tests following MRI scans to determine bone age, according to BBC Sport.
To make matters worse, 11 of the transfers sent into the squad also failed the trials and were too old to play in the matches.
The expulsion of those players followed the decision of the President of the Cameroon Football Association (FECAFOOT) Eto’o to test the players before the match.
“These players depend on football and most of them come from poor families and backgrounds,” Cameroonian journalist Giovanni Wanneh told CNN Sports, explaining why the players involved would try to show their age. fake it
“They want to lower their age so they can play for longer and make more money.”
Issues surrounding age verification are not new to the world of football.
Sir Alf Ramsey, the manager who led England to their only World Cup title in 1966, has changed his date of birth. According to the Morning Star, that was why he got a professional contract as an actor after World War II.
Brazil’s Carlos Alberto was 25 when he won the 2003 FIFA World Youth Championship with Brazil, a tournament for players under the age of 20.
According to ESPN, the player admitted in a television interview that he lowered his age because, “It was a chance for me to make a living … I was hungry.”
However, the problem of a player’s age remains prevalent especially in some countries like Cameroon and its neighbors.
Famously, former Newcastle United defender and current Marseille and DRC defender Chancel Mbemba were investigated by world governing body FIFA for having four different birthdays.
In an interview with The Mirror, he claimed to undergo bone tests to verify his age and was eventually ruled to have been born on the date he claimed by FIFA’s disciplinary committee.
Ghana and Nigeria, who have seven FIFA Under-17 World Cup titles between them, have come under scrutiny for the age of their trophy-winning squads.
Some observers question the success that the team has achieved at a youth level, but has not been repeated at the highest level of international football.
Gomezgani Zakazaka, head of competitions Gomezgani Zakazaka, “I’m sorry to say this in the past, we have coaches who try to play for the podium instead of thinking about the whole idea of U-17 or U-19 as a development team. .” and negotiations in the Malawi Federation, told CNN Sport.
“I say we have become the stars of the U-17, World Cups. But what happens after that? How will we take our success in the U-17 to the national team? These are the questions we have to ask ourselves as Africa,” Zakazaka added. did
Ivorian journalist Mamadou Gaye goes further, telling CNN Sports: “I would also say that it would be fair enough if Africa returned all those trophies to FIFA. [the seven U-17 titles won by Nigeria and Ghana]because it is clear and very clear that he won by deception.”
Africa’s love affair with football is no secret.
In Qatar 2022, fans from Morocco and Tunisia felt every game as if they were in Casablanca or Tunisia. Fans from Ghana, Cameroon and Senegal, although outnumbered in each match, provided a color and tone unmatched by any other nation in the tournament.
However, unlike rival countries in Europe and South America, most African nations do not have the talent pipelines and organizational structures that all those youngsters are competing to become Sadio Mane or Mohamed Salah.
A sport that is often idealized for its meritocratic values, is often a matter of luck in Africa, where players have to get few and far between chances if they want to make a professional career.
This lack of opportunity, coupled with a lack of social mobility, means that many young children and their families believe that football can be a ticket out of poverty.
That desperation and lack of opportunity for players creates a breeding ground to be taken advantage of, whether by coaches, managers, agents, and even parents who want to cash in on a kid’s talent.
It’s 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] financially stable clubs in Cameroon at this time, I can only identify two,” says Wanneh, who explains that most clubs in the country do not have a guarantee of a regular salary for the players.
With opportunities at home dwindling and the window to move to more lucrative contracts narrowing as clubs in Europe look for potential future stars at younger ages, there is a temptation to manipulate a player’s age – especially to make them younger – and with like this for national teams and clubs seem more attractive.
Meanwhile, managers are faced with problematic record-keeping – not just in football, but in society – according to Zakazaka, who says he has experience of this in his country.
Like Cameroon, Malawi recently conducted tests on their players ahead of their matches and had to withdraw some from their squad, Times Group Malawi reported.
“So far it’s still a challenge because we’ve been using a manual process of recording and keeping records in this part of Africa,” Zakazaka told CNN Sports.
“Another critical issue was the lack of birth certificates. You have many children who play football and do not have birth certificates.”
While countries like Cameroon and Malawi are starting to accept digital birth certificates, football managers in Africa still face challenges in confirming a player’s date of birth.
As a way to verify a player’s age, the continent’s football governing body – the Confederation of African Football (CAF) – has approved the use of MRI scans.
An MRI examines a player’s wrist, examining the growth plate before moving it from one to six.
Grade six means a player’s growth plate is completely fused to the bone, which usually occurs around age 18 or 19.
However, Thulani Ngwenya, who is a member of CAF’s medical committee and is part of CAF’s MRI implementation, explained that this MRI method is not an accurate assessment of a person’s age.
“It’s not an age limit or a protocol, but it’s an appropriate protocol, which are two different things,” Ngwenya told CNN Sports.
“He meets at 18 and 19, but he is not thrown to see.”
CAF acknowledges that it is still possible for players over the age of 17 to pass as eligible to play. The scan only works for boys because the development of the wrist growth plate is different for girls.
In addition, this application provides MRI as a method to verify the eligibility of players and a certain line that can be implemented.
And it is imposed. If a player fails the CAF eligibility test in a competition, the entire team is disqualified.
Chad was suspended for the matches hosted in Cameroon for failing a single test, and the DRC was forced to withdraw from the tournament because it could not find replacements in time after the players failed their tests at home. BBC Sport reported earlier this month.
By testing their players well ahead of the tournament, Cameroon were able to replace those who were unfit and pick a squad for the tournament.
Thanks to Chad’s disqualification and DRC’s withdrawal due to suspended players, Cameroon only had to beat Central African Republic and Republic of Congo to qualify for the Under-17 AFCON, which they did comfortably.
“For Cameroon to come out publicly, it will send a very strong message to the youth structures in Cameroon,” says Zakazaka.
“It is no longer business as usual that you only select players who will be judged based on the documents they have brought.”
Journalist Gaye also agrees: “When we reveal it openly, it will be a lesson for everyone. And that’s a clear and strong 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 kick you out, we will also ban you.”
As countries like Cameroon continue to digitize birth records, they can also use FIFA Connect, a database where federations can register players with a unique FIFA ID code, which acts as a digital passport.
While there is no definitive mechanism to verify a player’s age at the point of registration, once they are in the FIFA Connect system, it is impossible to track their data, giving federations like Cameroon and Malawi the ability to track everything. players in their ecosystems.
The adoption of FIFA Connect, combined with the growing adoption of digital records on the continent and federation leaders like Eto’o, means that the days of the “age cheat” appear to be numbered.
“The bill is about us as federations, as much as we’re putting in place structures that don’t have anything to do with cheating in the first place,” says Zakazaka.
“[But] I would say that moving forward these days, there is light at the end of the tunnel.”