Cameroon has completed its qualification for 2023 Africa The Nations Cup Under-17 Championship with a 2-0 victory over the Republic of the Congo on January 15, but the team that won that match was unrecognizable from the team initially selected for the event.
This is because 21 players from the original pool of 30 players were eliminated for failing the following age eligibility tests MRI scans To determine the age of the bones and then remove them from the team, according to BBC Sport.
To make matters worse, 11 of the substitutes drafted into the team also failed tests and were too old to play in the play-offs.
The expulsion of these players followed the decision of the President of the Cameroonian Football Federation (FECAFOOT) Eto’o to test the players before the competition.
“These players are based on football and most of them come from poor families and backgrounds,” Cameroonian journalist Giovanni Wanh told CNN Sports, explaining why the players involved tried to fake their ages.
“They want to get younger so they can play longer and earn more money.”
Issues around age verification are not new to the world of football.
Sir Alf Ramsey, the manager who led England to the 1966 World Cup title, has changed his date of birth. According to the Morning Star, this was so he could secure a professional contract as a player after World War II.
Brazilian Carlos Alberto was 25 when he won the 2003 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 an opportunity for me to make a living… I was hungry.”
However, the issue of player age remains particularly prevalent in some countries such as Cameroon and its neighbors.
Famously known, the former Newcastle United and current defender of Marseille and the Democratic Republic of the Congo Chancel Mbemba has been investigated by FIFA for allegedly having four different birthdays.
In an interview with The Mirror, he claimed he underwent orthopedic scans to check his age, and was eventually ruled to be born on the day FIFA’s Disciplinary Committee claimed.
Ghana and Nigeria, who have seven FIFA U-17 World Cup titles between them, have come under scrutiny over the ages of their two Cup-winning teams.
Some observers question the success the teams have had at youth level, but it has yet to be replicated at the senior level of international football.
“I regret to say this in the past, we have coaches trying to play on the podium rather than consider the whole idea of having an under-17 or under-19 team as a development team,” Gomezgani Zakazaka, Malawi Football Federation’s Head of Competitions and Communications, told CNN Sport. .
“I mean, we were stars at the U-17 World Cup. But what happened after this? How do we transfer our success in the U-17 World Cup to the national team? These are questions we as Africa have to ask ourselves,” Zakzaka added.
Ivorian journalist Mamadou Gaye goes further, telling CNN Sports: “I even say it would be fair enough for Africa to return all those trophies to FIFA. [the seven U-17 titles won by Nigeria and Ghana]because it is very clear and evident that it was won by cheating.”
Africa’s love affair with football is no secret.
At Qatar 2022, fans from Morocco and Tunisia made every match feel as if it was in Casablanca or Tunisia. And although outnumbered at every match by fans from Ghana, Cameroon and Senegal, they brought almost unparalleled color and noise to the tournament.
However, unlike rival nations in Europe and South America, the majority of African nations do not have the talent pipelines and organizational structure to develop all those youngsters vying to become the next Sadio Mane or Mohamed Salah.
An ideal sport for its meritocratic values often becomes a matter of luck in Africa, where players must venture out on opportunities few and far between if they are to carve out a professional career.
This lack of opportunity, combined with a lack of social mobility, means that many young children and their families believe that football can be their ticket out of poverty.
This desperation and lack of opportunity is fertile ground for players to take advantage of, be it coaches, administrators, agents and even parents looking to capitalize on a child’s talent.
It is more difficult in a country like Cameroon, where a domestic football career does not provide a reliable source of income, something Eto’o is trying to change by offering a minimum wage for players who play in local leagues.
“[To name] says Wanneh, who explains that most clubs in the country have no guarantee of a regular salary for players.
With fewer opportunities at home and a narrowing window to move into more lucrative contracts as clubs in Europe scout potential future stars at an increasingly young age, there is a temptation to manipulate a player’s age – particularly to make them younger – and thus appear more attractive to the national team and clubs.
Meanwhile, officials are having record-keeping issues — not only in football but also in wider society — according to Zakzaka, who says he has experience with the problem in his home country.
Like Cameroon, Malawi recently tested their players ahead of their qualifiers and had to drop some from their squad, Times Group Malawi reports.
“It’s still a challenge so far because we use a manual process for registration and record-keeping in this part of Africa,” Zakzaka told CNN Sports.
Another critical issue was the lack of birth certificates. You have a lot of kids who play football and don’t have birth certificates.”
While countries such as Cameroon and Malawi have begun to adopt digital birth certificates, football managers in Africa still face challenges in confirming a player’s date of birth.
As a means of verifying a player’s age, the Confederation of African Football (CAF), the governing body for football on the continent, has adopted the use of MRI.
An MRI scans the player’s wrist, examining a growth plate before classifying it from one to six.
Grade 6 means that the player’s growth plate has completely fused with the bones, which usually happens around the age of 18 or 19.
However, Thulani Ngwenya, who is a member of the CAF Medical Committee and was part of CAF’s implementation of the MRI scan, clarified that this MRI method is not an assessment of someone’s exact age.
“It’s not an age limitation and a protocol, but an eligibility protocol, which are two different things,” Ngwenya told CNN Sports.
“You blend in at 18 and 19, but it’s not cast in stone for you to see.”
CAF recognizes that players over the age of 17 can still pass as eligible to play. The scan also only works with boys as the development of the carpal growth plate is different for girls.
However, this MRI application serves as a methodology to check the eligibility of players and provide an enforceable bottom line.
And imposed on him. If a player fails CAF’s eligibility test in a competition, the entire team will be disqualified.
Chad was excluded from the qualifiers hosted by Cameroon due to one failed test, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo was forced to withdraw from the tournament because they were unable to find replacements in time after players failed their own tests on home soil, BBC Sport reported earlier in the year. This month.
By testing its players long before the qualifiers, Cameroon was able to replace those who were not qualified and choose from a team in the qualifiers.
Thanks to the exclusion of Chad and the withdrawal of the Democratic Republic of the Congo due to ineligible players, Cameroon only had to beat CAR and the Republic of the Congo to qualify for the U-17 Africa Cup of Nations, which they did comfortably.
“For Cameroon to stand out publicly, it would send a very strong message to the youth structures in Cameroon,” says Zakazaka.
“It’s no longer business as usual where you just pick the players who will be judged based on the documents they bring.”
Journalist Jay agrees: “When we put it out in the open, it will be a lesson to everyone. And it’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, not only will we kick you out, we’ll ban you.” .
As countries like Cameroon continue to digitize birth records, they are also able to use FIFA Connect, a database where federations can register players with a unique FIFA ID code, which acts as a digital passport.
Although there is no proven mechanism for verifying a player’s age upon registration, once they are in the FIFA Connect system it is impossible to manipulate their data, giving federations such as Cameroon and Malawi the ability to track every player. player in their ecosystem.
The adoption of FIFA Connect, coupled with the growing adoption of digital record-keeping on the continent and confederation presidents such as Eto’o means that the days of “cheating the age” seem numbered.
“The bill stops with us as unions as far as we put in place structures to ensure there is nothing to do with cheating in the first place,” Zakzaka says.
“[But] I would say that from now on, there is light at the end of the tunnel.”