In January this year, Cameroon dropped 32 players from the U-17 men’s national team after failing eligibility tests. This was not the first such incident. In 2016, nearly half of Nigeria’s U17 national team were banned from an Africa Cup of Nations qualifier for failing tests.
And not only national teams are affected, several players of African descent playing in Europe have more or less strong doubts about their age, including Borussia Dortmund’s German international Youssoufa Moukoko, who hails from Cameroon, and Hamburg’s Bakery Jatta. While such allegations are often tinged with racism, young African footballers continue to be the target of age fraud.
MRI scans of the wrists
With reliable, official government records not always available, football governing bodies across the continent are increasingly turning to magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans of players’ wrists to determine their age.
This is also the case in Cameroon, where the national football federation (FECAFOOT), led by former Barcelona star and Cameroonian international Samuel Eto’o, is determined to ban potential age cheats from the country’s squad for next month’s Africa Under-17 Cup in Algeria .
The Cameroonian federation, which ex-professional Samuel Eto’o heads, has to deal with cases of age fraud
The MRI scans, considered more ethical than X-rays, show the extent to which the cartilage at the ends of the bones, called growth plates, have transformed into bone material, allowing the bones to grow together. This process usually takes place in men between the ages of 18 and 19.
“You can’t trust the passes”
According to FIFA, citing a study by their Medical Assessment and Research Center published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine in 2007, complete fusion of a player’s wrist means there is a 99 percent certainty that the player is over the age of 17 – although this is controversial in some medical circles.
“We know that this measurement is not always accurate,” says Chuka Onwumechili, professor and exercise researcher at Howard University in Washington DC. “While it can be used to identify overweight people, it can also sometimes incorrectly identify minors. So I have mixed feelings about this method opposite,” he says. “Nevertheless, it seems to be the best of all methods because you can’t trust the passes.”
The lure of wealth and fame drives many uneducated young people from poor backgrounds and harsh environments to professional football, where they are at the mercy of unscrupulous agents and officials. The lack of digital records in many African countries is helping footballers and their agents to falsify their age to appear younger, thus gaining opportunities at clubs in Europe and the growing leagues in the US and Asia.
“In Ghana, we now use the Ghanaian identity cards that are linked to most of our government institutions to control age fraud,” explains Ernest Yeboah Acheampong, a sports and health researcher at the University of Education in Winneba, just outside the Ghanaian capital Accra . “But associations should also no longer accept affidavits in support of a name and age change. The moment this happens there is a problem and the person wants to cheat. Sometimes the parents are not even aware that theirs this was done to children.”
Adult level achievements are not repeatable
Acheampong’s study of 55 Ghanaian professional footballers between 1994 and 2014 showed that many players peaked in terms of performance and ratings between the ages of 20 and 24 and began to decline by the age of 25, indicating the possibility of age discrimination. In contrast, the scores and performances of many European footballers in their 20s and 30s are consistent.
“You can’t tell me that a 10-year-old boy in Ghana or Nigeria behaves differently than a 10-year-old boy in Europe. They should have similar characteristics,” says Acheampong. “Our coaches, team owners and the Football Association are part of the problem.”
Because age cheating is so widespread, this phenomenon is increasingly being used to explain the gap between the performances of African youth and senior teams. African teams have won seven World Cups at U17 level (Nigeria five, Ghana two), and Ghana also won the 2009 U20 World Cup. According to the 2019 CIES Football Migration Report, these two West African countries account for 50 percent of African footballers playing in the world’s major leagues.
However, the successes of the youth teams could never be repeated in the senior national team. Ghana’s quarter-finals at the 2010 World Cup and Morocco’s semi-finals at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar were the best achievements for African teams.
However, as the success of senior national teams depends on many factors, including the strength of the organisation, the quality of management and mental preparation, Washington DC’s Chuka Onwumechili believes there are other reasons. “There is no place in the world where youth team achievements translate directly into senior team wins, except maybe in Brazil. That’s an outlier. It doesn’t work that way in most other countries,” he claims. “When African players do well at youth level, a lot of them go to Europe. They train there with some of the best clubs in Europe, so why doesn’t that help them in the senior team?”
As long as no concrete sporting solutions can be found to these questions, the gap between success in youth and the senior national team in Africa will remain. And unless African countries prioritize the digital collection of data that is easily accessible for verification, they may have to live with age fraud as an explanation.
The text has been adapted from English.