It’s been a problem for ages, but Cameroonian footballer Samuel Eto’o seems determined to eradicate it.
Cameroon sealed their qualification for the 2023 Africa Cup of Nations’ U17 tournament with a 2-0 win against the Republic of Congo 2-0 on January 15, but the team that won that match was unrecognizable from what was originally selected for event.
That’s because 21 players from the original 30-man squad were disqualified for failing age eligibility tests following MRI scans to determine bone age and then dropped from the squad, according to BBC Sport.
To make matters worse, 11 of the replacements drafted into the squad also failed the tests and were too old to play in the qualifiers.
The expulsion of these players followed Cameroon Football Association (FECAFOOT) President Eto’o’s decision to test players ahead of the competition.
“These players are addicted to football and most of them come from poor families and backgrounds,” Cameroonian journalist Giovanni Wanneh told CNN Sports, explaining why the players involved would have tried to falsify their ages.
“They want to reduce their age so they can play for longer periods and earn more money.”
Issues surrounding age verification are not new to the world of football.
Sir Alf Ramsey, the manager who led England to their solitary World Cup title in 1966, changed his date of birth. According to the Morning Star, it was so that he could get a professional contract as a player after the Second World War.
Brazilian Carlos Alberto was 25 when he won the 2003 FIFA World Youth Championship with Brazil, a tournament for players under the age of 20.
According to ESPN, the player admitted in a television interview that he reduced his age because: “It was a chance for me to make a living … I was hungry.”
However, the issue of a player’s age is still particularly prevalent in certain countries such as Cameroon and its neighbours.
Famously, former Newcastle United and current Marseille and DRC defender Chancel Mbemba was investigated by world governing body FIFA for allegedly having four different birthdays.
In an interview with The Mirror, he claimed to take bone samples to confirm his own age and was eventually ruled to have been born on the day he claimed by FIFA’s disciplinary committee.
Ghana and Nigeria, who have seven FIFA U17 World Cup titles between them, have been scrutinized for the age of their cup-winning squads.
Some observers question the success the teams have had at youth level, but which has not been replicated at the senior level of international football.
“I’m sorry to say that in the past we’ve had coaches trying to play for the podium instead of thinking about the whole idea of having an U-17 or U-19 as a development team,” Gomezgani Zakazaka, head of competitions and communications at the Malawi Federation, told CNN Sport.
“I mean we have been stars in the U-17, World Cups. But what happens next? How do we take our success at the U-17 to the national team? Those are questions we should be asking ourselves as Africa,” added Zakazaka.
Ivorian journalist Mamadou Gaye goes further, telling CNN Sports: “I would even say it would be fair enough for Africa to return all these trophies to FIFA (the seven U-17 titles won by Nigeria and Ghana) because it is obvious and very clear that it was won by cheating.”
Africa’s love affair with football is no secret.
At Qatar 2022, fans from Morocco and Tunisia made every game feel like it was in Casablanca or Tunis. Fans from Ghana, Cameroon and Senegal, although outnumbered at each match, also brought a color and noise that almost no other nation could match at the tournament.
But unlike rival countries in Europe and South America, the majority of African nations do not have the talent pipelines and organizational structure to develop all the youngsters vying to become the next Sadio Mane or Mohamed Salah.
A sport usually idealized for its meritocratic values often becomes a matter of luck in Africa, where players must take chances that are few and far between if they are to carve out a professional career.
This lack of opportunity, combined with a lack of social mobility, means that many young children and their families believe that football can be a ticket out of poverty.
This desperation and lack of opportunity is a breeding ground for players to be exploited, be it by coaches, administrators, agents and even parents looking to cash in on a child’s talent.
It is even more difficult in a country like Cameroon, where a career in domestic football does not provide a reliable source of income, something Eto’o is trying to change by introducing a minimum wage for players playing in domestic leagues.
“(To name) financially stable clubs in Cameroon at this time, I could only point to two,” says Wanneh, who explains that most clubs in the country have no guarantee of a regular salary for players.
With the lack of opportunities at home and the window to land a move to more lucrative contracts narrowing as clubs in Europe scout potential future stars at ever younger ages, there is a temptation to manipulate a player’s age – especially to make them younger – and thus appear more attractive to the national team and the clubs.
Meanwhile, administrators are faced with problematic registration – not only in football but also in wider society – according to Zakazaka, who says he has experience of this problem in his home country.
Like Cameroon, Malawi recently conducted tests on its own players ahead of its qualifiers and had to drop some from its squad, Times Group Malawi reported.
“It’s still a challenge until now because we’ve been using a manual process of registration and registration in this part of Africa,” Zakazaka told CNN Sports.
“Another critical issue has been the issue of missing birth certificates. You have a lot of kids playing football who don’t have birth certificates.”
While countries such as Cameroon and Malawi are starting to adopt digital birth certificates, football administrators in Africa still face challenges in confirming a player’s date of birth.
As a way of verifying a player’s age, the continent’s football governing body – the Confederation of African Football (CAF) – has adopted the use of MRI scans.
The MRI scans a player’s wrist and examines the growth plate before grading it from one to six.
Grade six means a player’s growth plate has completely fused to the bone, which typically happens around age 18 or 19.
However, Thulani Ngwenya, who is a member of CAF’s medical committee and has been part of CAF’s implementation of MRI scans, explained that this MRI method is not an assessment of someone’s exact age.
“It’s not an age provision and a protocol, but it’s an eligibility protocol, which are two different things,” Ngwenya told CNN Sports.
“It merges at the age of 18 and 19, but it’s not set in stone to see.”
CAF recognizes that it is still possible for players over the age of 17 to pass as eligible to play. The scan also only works for boys, as the development of the growth plate of the wrist is different for girls.
Nevertheless, this MRI application serves as a method of verifying players’ eligibility and providing a bottom line that is enforceable.
And enforced it is. If a player fails CAF’s eligibility test at a competition, the entire team is disqualified.
Chad was disqualified from the qualifiers in Cameroon due to a single failed test and the DRC had to pull out of the tournament because it could not find replacements in time after players failed its own tests at home, BBC Sport reported earlier this month.
By testing its players well before the qualifiers, Cameroon was able to replace those who were ineligible and select from a squad for the qualifiers.
Thanks to Chad’s disqualification and DRC pulling out due to disqualified players, Cameroon only needed to beat Central African Republic and Republic of Congo to qualify for the U17 AFCON, which it did comfortably.
“For Cameroon to come out in the open, it will send a very strong message to the youth structures in Cameroon,” says Zakazaka.
“It’s no longer business as usual where you just select players who will be judged according to the documents they have brought in.”
Journalist Gaye agrees: “When we put it out in the open, it will serve as a lesson to everyone. And it’s a clear and strong message to all the agents, to all the parents, to everyone involved in the game. Don’t try to cheat . If you try to cheat, we will not only take you out, but we will ban you.”
As countries such as Cameroon continue to digitize birth records, they are also able to use FIFA Connect, a database where federations can register players with a unique FIFA ID code that acts as a digital passport.
Although there is no secure mechanism to verify a player’s age at registration, it is impossible to tamper with their data once they are in the FIFA Connect system, allowing federations such as Cameroon and Malawi to keep track of every player in their ecosystems.
The adoption of FIFA Connect, combined with a growing use of digital registration on the continent and confederation presidents such as Eto’o, means the days of “age cheating” look numbered.
“The bill stops with us as a federation, insofar as we introduce structures that ensure that there is nothing to do with cheating in the first place,” says Zakazaka.
“(But) I would say that these days there is light at the end of the tunnel.”