UEW Researcher Discusses Age Fraud in African Football with DW
Accusations of age fraud constantly dog African footballers and are even used to explain failures to replicate youth success at senior level. African nations have a responsibility to ensure that data isn't manipulated.
In January this year, Cameroon dropped 32 players from their under-17 men's national team squad after they failed age eligibility tests.
It wasn’t the first such incident. Back in 2016, just under half of Nigeria's under-17 team were ruled out of an Africa Cup of Nations qualifier due to failed tests.
And it's not just national teams who are affected, with several players of African heritage playing in Europe being subject to varying degrees of doubt regarding their age, including Borussia Dortmund's German international Youssoufa Moukoko and Hamburg's Bakery Jatta.
While such accusations are often tinged with racism, age cheating or age fraud does continue to dog young African footballers.
MRI wrist scans
And with reliable, official state records not always available, football federations across the continent are increasingly turning to magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans on the players' wrists in order to determine age.
Including in Cameroon, where the national football federation (FECAFOOT) under former Barcelona star and Cameroon international Samuel Eto'o is determined to deter potential age cheats from the country's squad at next month's U17 Africa Cup of Nations in Algeria.
Considered more ethical than x-rays, the MRI scans reveal the extent to which cartilage at the end of bones, known as growth plates, have converted into bone material, enabling the bones to fuse together, a process which generally occurs between the ages of 18-19 in men.
According to FIFA, citing a study conducted by its Medical Assessment and Research Center and published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine in 2007, complete fusion of a player’s wrist indicates a 99% certainty that the player is over 17 – although this has been disputed in some medical circles.
"We know that this measurement is not always accurate," says Chuka Onwumechili, professor and sports researcher at Howard University, Washington DC. "While it can detect those who are over-age, sometimes underage people are falsely detected. That is why I am a little bit ambivalent about using this method."
'You can't trust the passports'
"Nevertheless," he continues, "it seems to be the best of all the methods that are used because you can't trust the passports."
The allure of wealth and fame drives many uneducated young people from poor homes and harsh environments towards professional football, leaving them at the mercy of unscrupulous agents and officials.
The lack of digital records in many African countries helps footballers and their agents falsify their ages to appear younger to get opportunities with clubs in Europe and the growing leagues in the US and Asia.
"In Ghana, we are now using the Ghana national identity cards that are linked to most of our governmental institutions to check age cheating," explains Ernest Yeboah Acheampong, a sports and health researcher at the University of Education, Winneba, just outside the Ghanaian capital, Accra.
"But the federations should also stop accepting affidavits of support for a change of name and age. The moment this happens, there's a problem, and the person wants to cheat. Sometimes parents are not even aware that this is what has been done to their children."
Youth level success not replicated
Acheampong's research of 55 Ghanaian professional footballers between 1994 and 2014 has shown that many players reached their performance and valuation peaks between the ages of 20-24 and started to decline by age 25, indicating the possibility of age-doctoring. In contrast, the values and performances of many European football players are steady from ages 20 to 30.
"You cannot tell me that a 10-year-old boy in Ghana or Nigeria would behave differently from a 10-year-old in Europe. They should have similar characteristics," he says. "Our coaches, team owners and FA are part of the problem."
With age fraud so commonplace, the phenomenon is being increasingly used to explain the gulf in success between African teams at youth and senior level.
The continent has won seven World Cups at under-17 level (Ghana twice and Nigeria five times), while Ghana also won the U20 World Cup in 2009. According to a 2019 CIES football migration report, these two West African countries' footballing talent represents 50 per cent of the African footballers playing in the world's major leagues.
Yet that success has never been replicated at senior level, with Ghana’s run to the World Cup quarterfinal in 2010 and Morocco's semifinal finish at Qatar 2022 being the continent's best runs.
But with many issues affecting success at senior national team levels, including organizational strength, managerial quality and mental preparedness, Professor Onwumechili in Washington DC believes there is more to it.
"There's no place in the world where performance at youth level has directly translated into victory at the full national team, except maybe in Brazil. That's an outlier. In most other countries it just doesn't work like that," he contends.
"If African players do well at junior level, many of them go on to play in Europe. There, they are training with some of the best clubs in Europe, so why doesn't that help them in the senior national team?" he asks.
Until those concrete sporting solutions are found, the gap between success at youth and senior level in African will remain. And Until African countries prioritize record keeping in a digital format easily accessible for verification, accusations of age fraud will persist as an explanation.