ONCE again, Nigeria â€™s name has surfaced in another alleged age cheating in international sports events. This time, it was in South Africa where the Nigeria â€™s female Under-17 soccer representatives, the Flamingoes, are being accused of fielding a number of over aged players.
The Flamingoes, which beat the South African squad both in the Moshood Abiola Stadium in Abeokuta here in Nigeria 5-0 and also in Klerksdorp, South 2-1, raised the suspicion of the South Africa side, whose officials have petitioned the Federation of International Football Associations (FIFA), alleging age cheating on the side of Nigeria .
The point of this editorial is not whether or not the South Africans were correct to accuse Nigeria of cheating. The fact has long been established against, not only Nigeria but mainly African countries and others about their frequent penchant for fielding people who are well over the age bracket for these specialised age group competitions.
The first time this cropped up was in the 1980â€™s after Nigeria stamped her authority in the age group soccer championships by being the first to win the Under 16 World Championship in 1985.
The instant fame and opportunity to further their playing careers in more lucrative environments abroad became even a greater motivation for players, coaches and even parents to falsify the ages of their wards.
It was common for diminutive adults approaching their middle ages to pose as cadet players with the hope of earning their passports to fame, glory and money.
At a point, even the very authorities in the Federal Ministry of Sports, Nigerian Football Association (now Federation) and the various sports associations were part and parcel of this cheating because they stood to benefit from the windfalls that government often handed out to the players when they won important championships.
The age cheating has a damaging effect on the development of our sports same as poaching does. In the quest to justify their places and earn personal glory, sports officials of states, sometimes with the various state governors fully in the picture, often went out on a poaching binge few months to the biannual Sports Festivals to increase their chances of either winning or coming top of the winners table.
This went in no small way in retarding sports development at the grassroots because officials lost interest in scouting for, and grooming, young talents. As soon as the hot-cake athletes lose their market values, they are dropped to shift for themselves, while at the same time there are few young talents to replace them. That was how Nigeria lost her place in the sporting world.
Age cheating similarly cripples the growth of sport. The young people, for whom the age group competitions were created, are not given enough chance to be discovered and raised to serve the nation right up to the senior level. When people who have played in the local league for upward of ten years show up in the Under 21 Flying Eagles camp, even if they achieve their aim of getting call-up to the Super Eagles and gain contract with foreign teams, their days are usually short.
While genuine young players from European and American countries continue to serve their countries for years, getting better as they advance in their careers, our players simply drop out of reckoning.
Age cheating has backfired on us for long. It is time that we recognised the fact that it is better to catch them young and groom them to be champions rather than cheat, win and lose at the senior level where the real prestige lies. Besides, being known as an age cheater does not help our battered international image.
If we are serious about rebranding Nigeria , part of changes we must make in our attitudes is to eschew age cheating and be satisfied with what our genuine youngsters are able to achieve in international competitions.