Tackling age-cheating in football from the root
THE sun decided to go on break that day as we waited eagerly for the blast of the referee’s whistle. The atmosphere was nothing short of electrifying. Pupils from both schools gathered, in colourful attires, with masker, cheering on their teams. As the referee stretched his hands to the centre circle; the blast of the whistle, which echoed the bald playing surface like the biblical trumpet that collapsed Jericho’s walls, signaled the beginning of the final match of the inter-primary school football competition.
Everything went well; we were enjoying the game and the tension was high as both teams were level, needing a goal to produce the winner, until the opposing team was about to make a substitution. As the player stepped onto the pitch, there were pockets of protest. The argument was that the substitute was not a primary school pupil but a student in a secondary school (the secondary school arm of the primary school team he intends to represent).
Despite the protest, the organisers turned deaf ears to the protest and cries (one of them even shouted us down that we should keep our opinions to ourselves, after all “no be we born am”) and the referee and players thronged back to the pitch to continue the match.
We felt embittered as the substitute tore the heart of my school’s team defence with his sublime skills before chipping the ball over the helpless goalie; scoring the goal that separated both teams. He was seen as the next best thing that could happen to youth football but that ended up as a farce, it never materialised.
The picture painted above, is but the reality on the persistent problem of age-cheating in Nigerian football. From inter-schools championships in communities, to various national competitions, the story is not different. It is not novel for some coaches and teams to hire those in secondary schools to play in tournaments meant for primary schools and also those in tertiary institutions, also paid to do same in championships mapped for secondary schools (high school).
Since the Nigerian U-17 team clinched the first Kodak U-17 World Youth Championship, the country has gone on to win five additional trophies in that age category and came within touching distance of claiming the FIFA U-20 World Youth Championship (Silver in 2005, 1989).
However, these victories which were seen as launch pads for the building of a formidable senior national team, that could bring the World Cup home, have fallen the expectations of football fans in Nigeria to the ground.
Despite measures put in place over the years, and of recent, the MRI scan and test, the problem of age-cheating has continued to rear its ugly head in Nigerian football. Age-cheating is a problem in Nigerian football that can be likened to the proverbial hydra-headed monster. To tame the tide of the monster, we must go back to the root.
It is a known fact that somebody would find it difficult to cheat if he is not supported and aided by another person. Why many may be quick to point accusing fingers on the “ogas at the top” for allowing age-cheating to persist in the Nigerian football fraternity, those who are at the low-level of life are most often the engine room.
It is not uncommon for people to reduce their age and call it “official age.” This is same for footballers. Whenever an age grade tournament is going on, and arguments are raised in relation to the players’ age, you will likely hear some say “na u born am?” (Are you the one that gave birth to him?). There is no gainsaying that age-cheating is a problem not peculiar to football only; many people, especially in the public sector do that for reasons varying from staying longer in service to gaining promotion. In fact, people around you, would be the ones to help you.
In various age-grade football competitions, it is a regular menu for the coaches in conjunction with parents to falsify the age of the players. The coaches would even tell you that altering your age, either raising or reducing it, is not a new thing. There have been many instances where some players have been sent home because the coaches and team managers saw them as “too young” to cope. All the players need do is swear an affidavit in a law court since in most cases; there are no official birth records to verify age in most of our communities.
For us to tame this wild fire, charity needs to begin at home. If the birth register in the country were to be effective, then getting the real age of these young lads would never be a problem. It would be foolhardy for football administrators in the country to treat headache, a symptom of malaria, instead of the malaria itself.
Those who play in age-grade competitions are not spirits; they have homes, parents, friends and those who know them from the root. Age-cheating cannot be nipped in the bud, if it is confronted from an angle that condones wrong and is treating the symptoms and not the sickness.
The NFF and other stakeholders in football need to engage a holistic approach in tackling the shameful practice because until the mindset of the average Nigerian towards age-cheating is changed, especially in relation to football at the age-grade level, we should be rest assured of reaping woes of lamentations at the senior level, despite an impressive portfolio in cadet championships.
• Egobiambu is a sports analyst.
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