Tuesday, December 1, 2009
It's time to stop cheating...
The Frenchman’s view that “the important thing in life is not the victory but the contest”, comes from a purist’s perspective, from one who is acutely aware that triumphs in sports contests are pyrrhic, if they are not achieved upon the fundamental building blocks of integrity and diligence.
Whether members of the African football fraternity care to admit it openly or not, it is an indisputable fact the continent’s victories at the Under-17 and Under-20 World Championships, over the last quarter of a century, have always been under a cloud of suspicion from other countries and continents, who believe Africa’s results were achieved with overage players.
But the corridor sniggers and whispers, hitherto inconvenient but harmless, turned into serious complaints this time when Adokiye Amiesimaka, a 1980 African Cup of Nations winner with Nigeria, who went on to have a successful career as a Barrister and Attorney-General of Rivers State, blew the whistle on Fortune Chukwudi.
Chukwudi, the captain of the Nigeria team that won silver at the 2009 U-17 World Championship (he wears the band in the picture above) and whose official date of birth is November 18th 1992, has been “outed” by Amiesimaka as being 25 years old.
“In the 2002/2003 season, I was chairman of Sharks Football Club of Port Harcourt (in Rivers State, in Nigeria's Niger Delta). I decided to have a feeder team of fresh school leavers not older than 20 years of age. One of my key players then is the current captain of our so-called Under 17 Golden Eaglets,” Amiesimaka revealed in his newspaper column in the Punch, one of Nigeria’s oldest newspapers.
“By his own admission at that time, that is seven years ago, he was 18 years old… If we are not utterly irresponsible, how can he be eligible for this tournament when he is not less than 25 years old now?,” Amiesimaka asked.
His revelation, made whilst the U-17 World Championship was on, stirred the proverbial hornet’s nest, as stung officials of the Nigerian Football Federation (NFF), unleashed their attack dogs on Amiesimaka.
"How can a sane person be writing something like that at this time?” asked NFF board member Taiwo Ogunjobi.
“[He is] just surprised that the team is doing well and [he is] looking for a way to discredit Nigerian football."
But no one has been able to disprove the claim of the former Nigeria international turned whistleblower.
The reliability of Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scans, approved by FIFA, football’s governing body, as an “accurate way”, with “a certainty of up to 99%”, of medically ascertaining whether a player is below the age of 17 - by ensuring the player’s wrist bone is unfused and therefore within the age limit – has been thrown into obvious doubt.
Sani Ndanusa, Nigeria’s sports minister, insisted, curiously, during a 14th November press conference in Abuja – in the company of FIFA president Sepp Blatter - that Chukwudi passed two MRI tests.
It is a claim that flies rudely in the face of Amiesimaka’s concrete evidence and goes to the roots of a problem that knowledgeable people in the African football community agree has been condoned by an unspoken conspiracy of silence.
“Look Osasu, we all know that African teams have been cheating at U-17 and U-20 tournaments,” a former Ghana international casually admitted to me recently.
“Our victory at the U-20 World Cup in Egypt was also tainted by the presence of overage players in our team.”
“But why did the person making the Nigerian revelation have to speak now? What was the rationale behind that? He should have waited until the tournament had finished before talking. What matters to me is that Africa wins all the FIFA youth tournaments this year. ”
Truth can be inconvenient, and its pursuit, in an atmosphere that does little to promote it, is certainly perilous. But it is the truth nonetheless.
Four years ago, I had documentary evidence, derived from two different passports that Obinna Nsofor, who plays for Malaga in Spain’s Primera Liga, falsified his age whilst playing for Nigeria at the 2005 African World Youth Championship in Benin.
Confronting Ibrahim Galadima, the erstwhile Nigeria FA chairman, with the evidence, he ordered that the player be dropped from the team that went on to win a silver medal at the World Youth Championship in the Netherlands.
Rather than engage in hard graft and create teams from the depth of talent available in Africa’s secondary schools - the only place where you can find players truly 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!
The seducing euphoria - and the spoils - of victory, has led many African football administrators to be complicit in this culture of cheating that has stolen the opportunities of genuine teenagers, with the talent to make a successful career out of football.
A hunger for undeserved laurels and lucre - on the part of these 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 -forged this unholy alliance that is doing horrendous damage to the development of the African game at senior level.
FIFA conceived the Under-17 and Under-20 tournaments 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.
The culture of silence - or inaudible discontent - on age cheating does African football a terrible disservice and it is time for those who really care about our game to stand up and be counted.
As Rainer Willfeld, the German coach of Burkina Faso at the U-17 tournament rightly pointed out, it is just not good enough to see “prodigious promise” from overage players at these tournaments, only for them to fade into obscurity afterwards.
As Usman Dan Fodio, the 19th century Nigerian Islamic scholar succinctly pointed out, “conscience is an open wound and only truth can heal it.” Never has a truer thing been said.