Is Age Really Just A Number In Football?

Just the other day, I was lucky enough to watch the U16 Nike Premier Cup that took place at Cooperage. Two heavy weights met in the finals i.e. Minerva Football Club hailing from Punjab and Ozone Football Club that hailed from namma Bengaluru. To a neutral, it was an entertaining contest. I mean you have all the boxes ticked isn’t it? You’ve the youth, parents, coaches, trainers, scouts and the list can go on. But little do you know, when you see a towering giant standing at 5 feet 10 inches tall, who let’s just say “is 14 years or younger” has scored a bullet header in the top right corner.

AGE FRAUD ALERT! My spidey senses were as furious as the needle point on the Richter scale during an earthquake. It is quite often a case, where some of the poor sections of the country, do not have a birth certificate, are left as an orphan or any other situation arising.

So FIFA after a long discussion in 2009 start a wrist scan where every youth player from the age of 14-19 had to get a mandatory MRI scan and based on a 6 grade scale, knew their age. If a player was above grade 6 meant he/she was over the age of 17. Well this is a start to chuck out the overage players.

U17 Ghana Football Team were eliminated for fielding over age players. (Image source: CNN)

Wrist bone development certainly does change during adolescence. Before puberty the human body cranks out cells that help produce new cartilage along the ends of bones. These areas of the bone, known as growth plates, are eventually converted into bone material, which helps the bones lengthen. Yet as teenagers, both males and females start producing more estrogen, which slows that cellular production process—and their growth plate cartilage subsequently gets thinner and thinner until some of the bones in that area fuse together, and the growth plates close and are replaced by solid bone.(1)

The test results of the U17 Nigerian Football Team. (Image source: Nairaland)
It shows that a player between ages 18 and 19 years may pass the test by having an unfused wrist bone but the probability of doing so lessens as the true age of the player increases. Conversely, a player between the ages of 16 and 17 may also fail the test but the probability of this is less than 1%. However, because FIFA U17 competition allows grades I-V fusion it also means that more than 80% of those 18-19 years pass the test! That is a huge number but note that there is a risk in using players who are MRI grade V because they may transition to grade VI between test date during qualifiers and tests at tournament time and thus are ineligible.

As many as 58% of 18-19 year olds fall under grade V. Notwithstanding, because of eligible birthdate for FIFA’s U17 competition, those slightly over 17 years old at the start of the competition are deemed eligible by FIFA to participate in U17 World Cup. In essence, the “U17 World Cup” is not truly a tournament for players below the age of 17.(2)

In fact this has been the case for decades in India as well. I remember when I represented my school or district in track and field. I had boys standing next to me who would have made the hair removal companies huge profits. These guys had muscles well developed, voices beginning to crack and huge grunts every time they took to the track.

Although to catch someone in the wrong category would be hard to prove, I have heard stories of a few misguided teachers who deliberately failed students in order to keep them in primary school a bit longer because of their desire for their school teams to win. In doing this, the ages of the students involved remained unchanged. I had a classmate who failed the grade 8 thrice and represented the U16 team throughout. Ludicrous!

SS Lazio v UC Sampdoria - Serie A
Joseph Minana during the Serie A match between SS Lazio and UC Sampdoria at Stadio Olimpico on April 6, 2014 in Rome, Italy. (Image source: Google)

Let’s talk about Africa; they have a rich history of producing talent every year. Everything you need in an athlete, you will get in an African. Tall, strong, good engine and so on and so forth. A research team once carried an article that Lazio’s Joseph Minala a Cameroonian, whose stated age is 17, part of the Rome club’s reserve and youth setup was actually in fact 41 years old. My God man, how can you be so blind? Who gave the doctor his degree? Who sanctioned such a transfer? Many of the great African legends notably Nwankwo Kanu, Jay Jay Okocha, Obafemi Martins and Taribo West are all controversial cases.

Well there goes the rant, but how do we clean this age fraud system?

  • It must first begin at home. Parents need to stop fooling themselves and tell the truth about their child’s age.
  • Eat the right food and build your kid’s immunity system, raise the nutrition level and regularly exercise.
  • Burn those forged documents, like right NOW!
  • Sack and strip the licenses of those coaches, teachers and other trainers who encourage age fraud within their teams, academies and clubs.

Not just football, but all sports are about fair competition, team spirit, goodwill, sportsmanship and most importantly to have fun. Be the change to see the change. I hope you take away something out of this article; I am doing my best as well to clean the system.

Till then, enjoy a good kick, don’t cheat and invent a new celebration!


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One thought on “Is Age Really Just A Number In Football?

  1. Great article about a topic more need to write about. Aside from documents and bone tests, am sure there are other ways like photos to make it harder to make age fraud more difficult.


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