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Age fraud and African football

Age fraud has been defined as the use of false documentation to gain an advantage over opponents, usually by allowing players to compete in  youth tournaments.

It has become particularly associated with African, because in many countries in the continent, records are not easily verifiable. In some cases,  this can be due to ignorance – somebody can be born in a rural area where birth certificates are not issued as a matter of course. However, sometimes there can be a deliberate attempt to mislead clubs and tournament organisers, especially when money is at stake.

The country with the worst reputation when it comes to the practice is Nigeria. In the late 1980s the country was banned for two years from all FIFA competitions after it emerged that three players who represented them in the 1988 Olympics in Seoul in South Korea, had birthdays different to ones they had claimed in previous tournaments.

Then, when FIFA announced new ways to test age before the under-17 World Cup in 2009, the Super Eagles were forced to exclude 15 players from their original squad.

A year later, Anthony Kojo Williams, who was briefly head of the Nigerian Football Federation said “we always cheat. It’s a fact”.  

Some have claimed that the process is extremely easy. Forge documents at a business centre, walk into a Nigerian immigration office, paying over the odds for an international passport, and within hours somebody has a newly minted identity and age.

Nor has it just been an issue in international football. The problem has also reared its head in the European game and in the Premier League as well. In some cases, clubs have bought a player in their late 20s who turns out to be 10 and, in some extreme cases 15 or more years older. This has serious implications for their value to the club, longevity and fitness on the pitch, and injury and other treatment that they receive.

Due to the lack of concrete proof, many of the claims have yet to be proved one way or the other, but a number of Africans who have played for top level clubs remain under a cloud of suspicion.

One example was Nwanko Kanu, who won the Champions League with Ajax, before transferring to Arsenal and then playing form Portsmouth amongst others, scoring the winning goal for them in the 2008 FA Cup Final. He was believed to be as much as nine years older than the date on his birth certificate.

Meanwhile, Obafemi Martins, who played for the likes of Newcastle United and Birmingham City came under scrutiny during his time in Italy with Inter Milan. His player registration stated that he was born in 1984, but the Nigerian Football Federation insisted that his real birth date was six years earlier.

Similarly, Jay-Jay Okocha who graced the Premier League with Bolton Wanderers was rumoured to be ten years older than he claimed.

And, last but not least there was the case of Nigerian defender Taribo West who joined Partizan Belgrade from Derby County in 2010. At the time he told the Serbian club he was only 28, but, when they conducted medical tests, they concluded that he was probably 40 years old!

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