Wednesday, August 26, 2009

NIGERIA - For whom the bells toll

It has taken the possibility - I beg your pardon, certainty - of being caught by FIFA for age cheating at the next Under-17 World Championship for Nigeria's football federation, headed by Sani Lulu (pictured above) to conduct an MRI test and medically ascertain the players' true ages.

The results - which have ruled out a whopping 16 players (with subsequent reports indicating that many more may have fallen foul of the machine) - only confirms what football experts have known since Nigeria won the inaugural edition of this tournament in 1985 - we have NEVER won a youth tournament with genuine youngsters.

The hunger for undeserved laurels and filthy lucre - on the part of Nigeria's fraudulent officials - and a desire, on the part of age cheats, to play on the global stage and earn a professional football contract in Europe - has forged an unholy alliance between both parties that has done horrendous damage to the development of the country's football.

A tournament conceived by FIFA to help countries unearth talented teenagers that can play top level professional football for 14 or 15 years - or even more, if they have the good fortune of being away from the treatment table - has become a theatre of the absurd for Nigeria.

Rather than engage in hard graft and create Golden Eaglets' teams from the depth of talent available in Nigeria's secondary schools - the only place where you can find players within the age bracket - national coaches have picked 'teenagers' playing league football, even when they know that it is a rarity - even in the most advanced football nations - for a 16 year-old to be playing against seasoned pros!

I have never told this story publicly before now - but I will today, after keeping silent for four years.

Obinna Nsofor, the striker who was supposed to have been a part of the Nigeria team that went to the 2005 World Youth Championship in Holland, did not go to that tournament because I had proof that he was involved in age cheating and I alerted Ibrahim Galadima, then Nigeria FA chairman, who ordered that he be dropped.

After the African Youth Championship in Benin, which took place before the WYC, I discovered Nsofor had two passports that had two different ages.

I was still with the BBC World Service and BBC Sport Interactive when hard documentary evidence of this came to my desk at Bush House and my knee-jerk reaction, at first, was to splash it on our website and run it as a hot news item on air.

But two of my younger colleagues - who knew that publishing the evidence will damage the player's career - pleaded that I keep it to myself, knowing that Nigeria would face a heavy sanction from FIFA if I published what I knew.

I agreed (I know I am going to be slated for this - and I will take the flak) but was determined that I will not let Nigeria go to the WYC with an age cheat, so I called Ibrahim Galadima, revealed what I knew and 'advised' that Nsofor be dropped.

Being an honourable man that was not ready to be complicit in a cheating scam - and probably guessing that I would have no choice but to blow the whistle if he did not heed my 'advice' - he ensured Nsofor's name was removed.

Suleiman David, who was the FA's technical committee chair at the time, confirmed he was aware of what happened and told me Galadima had a huge fight with Samson SiaSia, the manager of the U20 side, who was determined to take Nsofor to Holland but had no choice but to defer to the FA chairman's order.

Argentine Marcelo Houseman, who was Nsofor's preferred agent at the time (Eddie Nwafor, the Holland-based Nigerian agent, also had a contract to represent Nsofor!) emailed me to claim his 'client' was not involved in an age scam but when I presented him with a chance to put his claims to the test, he never contacted me again!

Nsofor could not help being dishonest and was subsequently sanctioned by FIFA for signing contract papers for two clubs, so the cheating chickens came home to roost for the "too-clever-by-half" striker in the end.

This tale is just a tip of the iceberg and I hope that other stories will come to light.

The culture of silence - or inaudible discontent - on age cheating has done Nigeria a terrible disservice and it is time for those who really care about Nigerian football to stand up and be counted. Only the truth will set us free.