Time Nigeria ended age cheating

A few years ago I was sitting in the office of an ex NFF president. One of the international age group tournaments was six months away. A stream of players putting themselves forward for trials.

 “You are too old,” one player was patiently told by the ex President. “We last saw you in the Challenge Cup.” The retort from the nameless player was swift and with no hint of anything other than normality. “How old do you want me to be?”

At a guess he was already about 26.

Age issues in Nigerian football have been a problem since 1985 when Nigeria won the U-16 World Cup. The recent comments about Taribo West have brought the spectre of age falsification back into the open.

Zarko Zecevic, the former Partizan president last week said of West: “He joined us saying he was 28. We only later found out he was 40.”

Nigerians smile to themselves when they talk about age falsification, but it’s no laughing matter and they don’t like any one else raising the issue.

They bridle with indignation if anyone dares to suggest the country are serial age cheats. Remember when David Moyes, the Everton manager, said of Yakubu that “he’s 28, albeit a Nigerian 28.” There was uproar.

Try two more examples, this time of current players.

Obafemi Martins has had a raft of questions about his real age, especially when a website mistake aged him six years in 2005.

Just last season Emmanuel Emenike received a public apology from a newspaper which said he had falsified his age.

The gains, unfortunately, are typically Nigerian. They are all short term and show little regard for long term planning.

The belief and the truism that football is an escape route from abject poverty continues to ring true in Nigerian society with players doing everything and anything to get a contract overseas where the economies are invariably better.

The problem is that age usually catches up with people in the course of their career, but it is still a ‘valid’ way out of penury, poverty and a gateway into a better way of life for the footballer and his/her extended family.

Nigeria is up there as one of the biggest exporters of football talent in the world and not all her problems can be put down to the age issue, but there are problems which rear their head for the individual and national teams.

Lets not forget the aim of under-age tournaments is to showcase young talented footballers to the world and give them a track to follow.

Many players now at the very top of the world game represented their country in U-17 and U-20 levels. The best example is current World Footballer of the year, Lionel Messi, who shone at the U-20 World Cup in 2005.

He’s gone from that tournament to become the best player in the world.

Toni Kroos was the best player at the 2007 U-17 World Cup and is now the midfield fulcrum of both Bayern Munich and the German national team.

The top scorer in the 2007 U-17 World Cup was Macaulay Chrisantus. It would be a tough quiz question to guess where he is now, but currently you’ll occasionally find him playing for Spanish second division side, Las Palmas.

John Mikel Obi was also at the aforementioned 2005 U-20 World Cup in 2005. Mikel’s probably the best example of a player in recent times who has consistently trained on to senior level.
It’s a poor return, but then for Nigeria age grade football is all about winning at any cost. There’s little thought to discovering talent that will help the national team in the future.

At world level Nigeria has won the U-17 tournament thrice, won two silver medals at U-20 level and taken gold and silver at U-23 level at the Olympics. The second round of the World Cup is the best at senior level and the last time Nigeria did that was15 years ago – more than a generation of players. 

In all sport age catches up with people at some point in their career. Unfortunately, if you add years to your age you’ll fade just at the point where normally you’d be hitting your peak.

Psychologically and technically it is easier to shine when you are playing against players who may be five or six years younger than you. It’s probably a bit like being in the playground again, but you don’t improve. When your erstwhile employers think you should be training on, you don’t.

With this stagnation many players get depressed and find themselves then stuck in a cycle where they quickly move around smaller and smaller clubs.

It’s not always like this. Some who are very good can earn fabulous contracts, but again there is no longevity and their careers can fizzle out like the proverbial match. No Ryan Giggs equivalents here.

The bottom line is it’s time for Nigeria to see past the end of her nose, be true to herself and have a first, real young generation of talent. Then Nigeria will make real progress in football.



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