Age fraud in football can be the result of deliberate attempts to cheat, misrepresentation to help players up a career ladder, or just plain ignorance. With the level of money being thrown around in Europe, particularly in the Premier League, clubs must be careful of what they are getting into when looking at players with patchy or unknown backgrounds.
The debate surrounding age fraud has resurfaced once more in recent weeks and Lazio's Joesph Minala has made headlines across the world. The Cameroonian, whose stated age is 17, is a member of the Rome club's reserve and youth setup. The age of the 'teenager' has caused controversy after reports in the Senegalese media claimed he had secretly revealed that he was actually 41 years old. Both the player and his club have vehemently denied the rumours with Minala describing his alleged admission as "false statements". Lazio have even threatened legal action against the source of the rumour.
Whether Joseph Minala is 17 years old or not, the phenomenon of players hiding their age is all too common in football, most famously in Africa.
Nigeria has by far the worst reputation when it comes to age fraud in football. In the late 1980s, the Super Eagles were actually banned from all FIFA competitions for two years after it was confirmed that three of the players in the country's 1988 Olympics team had birthdays different to ones used in previous tournaments. Prior to the 2009 U17 World Cup, FIFA announced new measures to test age and Nigeria subsequently dropped 15 players from their squad. Many more examples exist and in 2010 Anthony Kojo Williams, briefly a supporter of change as head of the Nigerian Football Federation in the late 1990s, stated in relation to age fraud: "We always cheat. It's a fact".
According to Nigerian blogger George Onmonya, making players younger has never been easier: "You can walk into any immigration office in Nigeria today, forge documents at the nearby business centre, change your name, place of birth, date of birth, pay 7,000-10,000 naira instead of the official price of about 5,500 for an international passport and within hours you have completed the whole process."
Age fraud came to prominence in the Premier League from the mid 1990s onwards, as clubs began looking more and more at emerging African players. Several former Premier League players from Nigeria alone have been suspected of such misrepresentation.
Nwankwo Kanu is a legend of African football and became a cult hero in England playing for clubs like Arsenal and Portsmouth. The tall forward won the Champions League with Ajax in 1995, but was always suspected to be as much as nine years older than his stated age. Speaking in 2010, Harry Redknapp jokingly exaggerated that Kanu was 49, though given how he described ever increasing ailments and the need for treatment, there seemed to be a shred of authenticity to his words.
Former Newcastle United striker Obafemi Martins was also at the centre of an age row. The player had spectacularly burst onto the scene with Inter Milan as a youngster, but failed to make the most of his talent, suggesting he could already have been much older than stated. In 2005, while Martins was still in Italy, the Nigerian Football Federation claimed he was actually born in 1978, though his player registration stated it was 1984.
Similar stories also exist for both Jay-Jay Okocha and Taribo West, who plied their trade in the Premier League for Bolton Wanderers and Derby County respectively. Throughout his career, Okocha was rumoured to be 10 years older than his official age. Following his departure from Derby in 2001, West allegedly told Partizan Belgrade that he was only 28, though given the state of his body the club had strong suspicions that he was 40.
For clubs looking to buy players from Africa, the issue remains a question of, 'are they fully aware of what they are getting?'
The problem for clubs buying individuals who may have been guilty of lying about their age, is that a player in their late 'twenties' could actually be well into their thirties or even forties. The player would be signed under false pretences and such an issue could have implications for medical treatment. The player's long term ability and value to the club would also be affected.
Football is at a level in which clubs use scouting networks spread across the world to try and find the next unpolished superstar. Clubs are generally more willing to take chances on teenagers, rather than players already in their twenties, because there is time for them to develop. This is more than enough of a reason for players to falsify their age in the hope that it gives them a greater chance of being picked up by a big club.
Premier League clubs and indeed those elsewhere, must be careful when buying players, particularly 'young' ones, from certain parts of the world. With so much potentially at stake in terms of the money paid out in the modern game, simply trusting that a player is the age they say they are is not sufficient.
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