This past week there were reports that a large number of the football players Nigeria has assembled to represent the country in October in the FIFA Under-17 championship which Nigeria is hosting were medically tested and found to be above the age that qualifies players for participation. The shock is that no Nigerian that I have discussed with since then is shocked at the finding! There has always been a question mark about the ages of players from several countries, particularly African countries, that participate in past age-group competitions. The only check on eligibility of players is the International Passport they present that should normally provide authentic information on its holder. Obviously, the reputation of some third world countries in the area of documentation as experienced daily in the course of global business reveals that the situation provides an exploitable loophole for those who can choose to benefit from falsifying data! Obviously, the abuse must have reached such a level that FIFA has now decided to find a scientific response to tackle the problem.
In 1988, after the 1987 World Youth championship, in my naivety and with the purest of intentions I did not have to do more than a cursory logical computation, peeling the skin from the information that was in the public domain, to scream out loud that some of the players we used in the championship could not be the ages they claimed. Those who were in charge of Nigerian football at the time were enraged. It was such a ‘heinous’ crime that I became victim of unwritten ostracisation from football administration for many years after that.
I apologise for pontificating when I should be telling a story!
Some two years ago, or so, at the NUGA games that held in Maiduguri, my friend came from America to recruit undergraduate footballers for his university. It is generally easier to get admission as a transferring student from a reputable Nigerian university. That’s why Sam chose to recruit players from the universities in Ile Ife and Port Harcourt! That’s why he went to Maiduguri.
Sam and his Nigerian scouts discovered a treasure trove of players in the competition even though there were several cases of players discovered to be hired or were non-bona fide. At the end of the games Sam selected 6 players from the competition, got their details and interested them in exploring the opportunity of transferring to the United States to complete their studies with guaranteed athletics scholarships. Within weeks the process of their transfers had started. Documents were completed. At the final hurdle to obtain visas at the American embassy only one of the 6, for reasons that are known only to the American embassy staff, was approved. The other 5 student players’ visa requests were rejected.
One of them was a student of Obafemi Awolowo University. In going through his documents we saw that it took him two years to seek and secure admission into the university after completing his secondary school education. He was in his third year at the university! That’s was two years ago. After the NUGA games where he actually impressed a lot of people including other foreign scouts he abandoned his studies and joined the ranks of those being exported to Europe as kids and sent to clubs junior teams to ‘grow’ and mature!. The club would soon find him growing sideways not upwards as any young lad still under the age of 17 would do!
The arithmetic is easy to work out! No matter the computation one comes up with, no matter the allowances one makes up for early schooling, ingenuity and academic excellence, no matter the parameters used in measuring rapid acceleration through the classes, there is no way such a player that left secondary school 7 years ago would be less than 17 years old by October 2009!
That young man is one of the 16 (or is it 22) that failed the newly introduced medical test conducted at the instance of FIFA for Nigeria’s present Golden Eaglets preparing to represent Nigeria in October this year! There would have been many Nigerians that know this young man, starting from his parents, his teachers in primary and secondary school, his mates in the neighbourhood he grew up in, his class and school mates through Primary, secondary and university. In October 2009 we all would have sat and watched this young man outplay children 7 or 8 years his junior, ‘excelled’ and brought ‘victory’ to Nigeria. We would have feted him, celebrated him and made him a hero. We would have rewarded him with gifts and honours along with his co-conspirators in this racket, made them models of the next generation and perpetuated falsehood and cheating! Yet, we would have known all the time that this is a moral baggage; that the victory, the glory, the honours, the accolades, were all fraudulently achieved and undeserved.
Nigeria does not have to win the FIFA under-17 championship by all means. But who says the country cannot win it with its best students under-17? Even if they don’t NOW the country would have started the process of developing authentic talents, the ones that represent the values we want to stand for as a nation, who would go ahead into the future with experiences and exposure from the 2009 event to become winners of bigger trophies in the years to come! Then we can truly celebrate!