Football is widely acknowledged as the only thing that unites Nigerians. Whenever Nigeria is involved in major international football tournaments, every citizen, from the President to the common person, forgets the many divisive factors wracking our national unity and commits to victory for Nigeria, irrespective of the ethno-religious or sectional backgrounds of the coaches and the players representing the country.
But this sport which is like opium to Nigerians is bedevilled by the odious phenomenon of age cheating by players. This has made it very difficult for Nigeria to consolidate after some exemplary outings such as the gold medal won by our Dream Team squad at the Atlanta 1996 Olympic Games in the USA.
Age cheating – the act of fielding over-aged players in age group competitions – is a worldwide phenomenon, but far more rampant in Black Africa. It has taken a heavy toll on our football development. For instance, we have won the FIFA U-17 World Cup five times (more than any other country). But we have only played in two finals of the U-20 since its inception in 1977 in Tunisia!
Unlike other countries where genuinely eligible players who go through the age group championships serve at the senior level for upwards of ten years, most Nigerian age group players fizzle out before they break into the Super Eagles, apparently because by then they have become too old. Most of them who manage to find clubs outside the country play in obscure leagues and are soon no longer heard of. This defeats FIFA’s purpose of instituting the age group tournaments.
Nigeria suffered a major international shame in 2016 when 26 members of the U-17 team involved in the qualifier for the finals hosted by India in 2017 failed an age test conducted by the Confederation of African Football, CAF. Nigeria eventually failed to qualify.
Nigerian football authorities must take the bull by the horns and adopt zero tolerance to age cheating. We should no longer depend on the oft-fraudulent player information provided by the players, family members, agents and even coaches who connive to cheat for personal gain. In addition to the Magnetic Resonance Imaging, MRI, tests any player who has completed secondary education and has played in the local league should no longer be eligible for the U-17 squad.
Football administrators should monitor budding talents through the schools and soccer academies. That way they can effectively keep out cheats. Emphasis should no longer be on winning the age group competitions by all means. Development of our football should be paramount.
Integrity will not only ensure longer service by our national players, it will also clean up our soccer image from the laughingstock it has become.