Vexman had just visited an English Premiership fan forum where British fans who doubted the official age of a particular Ghanaian player were quoting posts from a Ghanaian fan forum to show even Ghanaians were questioning the man's age.
Vexman believes any African who openly questions the official age of any African player is a traitor to his people. A traitor guilty of ruining the career prospects of fellow Africans by providing ammunition to those in European club football (not just fans, but club administrators) who think most if not all African players are using false ages.
I disagree with Vexman entirely.
Firstly, the comments of African football fans, online or offline, are not the source of European football administrators' and fans' suspicion. Their suspicion starts with the rather mature-looking and physically-dominating (power, strength, speed, etc) teams we field in Under-17 competitions.
Obviously, you cannot tell a person's age by their looks, and anywhere you go in the world, the top teenage athletes are usually those who matured faster than their peers. We all know that a hard life makes anyone look older than their years, even later in life. And the oft-implied-but-never-spoken truth is some Europeans and South Americans believe the only way an African team can beat them at any level is by cheating or "Cinderella" luck.
With all that said, the mature appearances and physically-dominant performances of our "teenage" footballers is the starting-point of global suspicion of our glory in age-restricted football. It doesn't help that we have been caught age-cheating in the past. Nigeria was banned from age-restricted competition between 1989 and 1991 after we were caught violating the rules.
In the quarter-century since 1985 when the Eaglets won the first FIFA Under-17 World Championship, the player-recruitment and player-trading markets have been utterly globalized. It was never this easy for players to move from club to club, country to country, continent to continent, chasing the ultimate payday. Europe is the destination of choice (even for Europeans), but well-paying leagues in East Asia, North Africa, Mexico, the Persian Gulf, and elsewhere are also importing talent in volume. Footballers have become globally traded commodities; amusingly some players have become living, breathing equity investments, a single person part-owned de facto by two clubs, a private equity fund, and a venture capitalist.
Within this context, Africa generally and Nigeria particularly, have specialized in the provision of plentiful cheap talent, particularly for the unknown clubs in out-of-the-way leagues that cannot hope to compete with the bigger clubs for higher-profile players from South America and Europe. There was a time, not too long ago, when a glance at the payroll of many European clubs would show their lowest-paid player was invariably their African recruits. I haven't paid much attention to European club football lately, but I doubt the statistics have changed that much.
A majority of Nigerian players are so keen to leave Nigeria they will basically sign for any club, for any wage, any conditions and any length of contract. It doesn't matter how small, cash-poor or inconsequential the club may be. The quality of the league the club plays in doesn't matter either. The long-term effect on their fiscal prospects (a.k.a. career) or on their international chances doesn't matter. So long as the club is outside Nigeria, they view it as a sign of career progress. Perhaps they think they have a better chance of catching the eye of the bigger European clubs by playing in Belarus, Moldova, Albania or Malta? Perhaps they have given up on Europe and intend to makes as much money as is possible to make in Vietnam, Singapore, Iran, Israel or Sudan.
Who knows? At the end of the day, African players are so desperate to leave Africa for Europe that they will do anything to enhance their marketability. And there are any number of African middlemen who have the "knowledge" and "experience" of the market and the willingness to tell players exactly what they have to do to "make it".
And it isn't just Africans doing it.
As fans of football, our eyes are drawn the stories of the megastars who "made it", not just the likes of Eto'o, Essien and Drogba, but every African footballer with a good contract at a decent club in Europe. Watching them strut on the UEFA Champions League stage, the whole thing looks like a wonderful, win-win proposition.
We forget that these success stories are a minority, and that the vast majority of African players are but pawns in an unmonitored, unregulated, unethical-at-best, criminally-corrupt-at-worst import-export trade in humans as a commodity. The trade in African players has been termed "human trafficking" by human rights agencies, journalists and even by top football administrators like Sepp Blatter and Michel Platini among others. The United Nations Human Rights Commission called it "a modern slave trade".
It is a lucrative business, a global business... and for all the finger-pointing at Africans for age-cheating, there are ample European and South American participants at all stages of the African player-transfer business. I suspect foreign interests make more money from it than the players, who are underpaid/exploited commodities, and the African middlemen, who are mostly (but not exclusively) errand-boys and grassroots "scouts" for other more influential industry participants.
Everyone involved in the business, African or otherwise, knows how easy it is to procure "official" documentation to say an African player is whatever age or nationality his "handlers" think would best maximize his marketability. In Nigeria it is an open secret that you can buy "official" documentation to give you whatever name, birth-date, birth-place or other information you desire, but even in allegedly less corrupt countries like Ghana, the same reality is evident.
On the streets of Accra, touts and agents advertise 'passport services' - everything from form-filling for the illiterate, to fake birth certificates - and are finding a new market for their criminal enterprise in young footballers.
Samuel Mundo, a passport agent, told us that it takes only US $100 to secure a Ghanaian passport. 'There is a lot of corruption here. When money is short, it is always possible to cut corners. We get many coaches here, paying for passports for their players. '
The above quote came from this excellent report by the UK's Guardian into the underworld of player-trafficking from Africa to Europe.
The seamy trade has drawn the attention of broadcast journalists as well. Marianna Van Zeller's informative documentary "Soccer's Lost Boys", made for Current TV, can no longer be accessed online, but here is Ms Van Zeller discussing it in a promotional piece:
Given that this blog post is about age-cheating, check out Al Jazeera's full-length report "Slaves to Football", and pay attention to the interaction (about 20 minutes in) between the undercover reporters, posing as English player-agents from a talent-scouting company, and a Ghanaian middleman. The faux agents make contact with the middleman, pretending to be seeking a business partner they can work with in Ghana. By way of self-promotion, the middleman assures them he has the proper connections to procure fake documents to say the player is whatever age is most convenient for his would-be future partners. "I get the job done," he assures them.
The managers of European clubs are the final link in the player transfer chain, and if it appears as if they treat African players' ages as suspect (without openly saying so, as it isn't politically correct) it is because they understand how the business works.
And contrary to Vexman's protestations, none of this is the fault of African fans discussing the issue online.
These reports (print and broadcast) make clear the desperation of Africa's poorest families for any shred of hope for a better future. A son who achieves a high-paying professional football career in Europe is quite possibly the most accessible legal rags-to-riches opportunity for families that want to improve their lot and have no interest in criminal short-cuts like robbery, drug-pushing, political thuggery or prostitution. In "Lost Boys", Van Zeller asks a man why families continue to fall for the scams even though by now they know there is a better chance they are being scammed than not. The man replies that the people are desperate for HOPE, and that the agents and middlemen are "Merchants of Hope", skilled at playing on the families desperation ... and hope. So families sell their homes, sell their cars, pull their children out of school and mortgage their entire futures on the more-often-than-not unfulfilled hope that the slick "agent" will make their son the next Yaya Toure.
Ironically, these families' desperation is the reason people like Vexman think we should keep quiet and allow age-cheating to continue. In his opinion, a football contract in Europe is the only hope of the players and, by extension, their families, so he feels we should help them out by defending their fake ages.
But Vexman's is a self-defeating point of view.
If we were really interested in working for these players and their families, we would devote our efforts to rapid, substantive, broad and deep economic reform and growth. We would improve the economic prospects of the poorest families so they do not have to sell their children to strangers, to football slavery, to exploitation at best and abandonment at worst; if the "agent" can't make a quick sale, they just disappear, leaving players stranded without accommodation, travel fare or a guardian's protection anywhere from Paris and Casablanca to Bangkok.
Watching the documentaries and reading the print articles, you realize that these young boys have a "Football-Or-Nothing" approach to life, and once it becomes clear that they have been deceived and no football career is forthcoming, they basically give up on life and hope entirely. This is sad. There are not enough clubs in Europe, nor enough places at the clubs, to absorb every young African who wants to play professional football in Europe. By definition a super-majority of these boys will have his dreams dashed. Why should we distort our moral compasses to make life easier for 1% of the players who do make it big in Europe, while apathetically watching the lives of the other 99% ruined because they have no opportunities within Africa to aspire to?
Indeed, if our economies were stronger, we could raise the financial profile of our football leagues and football clubs -- and thus the wages of players who remain to play their football in Africa. Remember how I said there are not enough clubs in Europe to absorb every aspiring African footballer? I didn't even mention the competition for scarce places from South America, from weaker European leagues, and from the other continents. The domestic leagues of Africa have the highest capacity to absorb African players, and will always be home to the world's largest number of professional and semi-professional African players. How is it better to distort our worldview for a handful of successful migrants to Europe, while tens of thousands of African footballers playing in Africa are struggling to earn a living wage?
Even if we cannot equal the wages of Europe immediately, we can at least achieve Egyptian levels of financing, can't we? Egyptian players do not go to Europe, and (more importantly) Egyptian clubs do not sell players to Europe, unless the wages and transfer fees are substantial and worthwhile. And if we must sell to Europe (I'd rather we didn't), why not emulate the Brazilians and Argentines, with leagues strong enough to keep teenagers until they can transfer to Europe as 20-year-olds, rather than continue parading 20-year-old Africans as 17-year-old kids in the hope of a contract?
Age-cheating is NOT a solution to ANYTHING. It doesn't help anyone. It doesn't even help the players, because EVERYONE in the game assumes EVERY African player is 3, 4 or 5 years older than he says he is. At this point, the players should be the first and loudest proponents of raising the degree of truth and trust, because, except for the superstars, the rest of them are probably making less money than they otherwise would, since the clubs are hedging against the possibility that their "25-year-old" will start playing like a "35-year-old" in a couple of years, denying them not only value-for-money but the transfer fees a younger player would get if the club decided to be rid of him.
I am dismayed by the Nigerian Football Federation's tacit official support for age-cheating ... and disappointed that so many Nigerian fans overtly support the NFF's position.
It is self-defeating.
As a mega-fan of the Nigerian national teams, I want the Eagles and Falcons to be in a position to draw on a consistent and continuous production-line of world-class talent. Decade after decade, as one generation comes and goes, we must remain strong enough to be African champions and World Cup semifinalists. We must!
As such I am deeply interested in the discovery of young, teenage players with potential. Players hit their prime between their mid-20s and their early-30s; the fun (for club coaches and football fans alike) lies in spotting which teenage player will be at the top of the game when they hit their prime. Of course there are supremely talented players who are already at the top of the game in the teens; such rare discoveries are all the more prized.
Unfortunately, when "teenage" or "young" (i.e. very low 20s) Nigerian players emerge, I cannot tell if I am looking at someone who is going to improve as he approaches his mid-20s (as Okocha did) or if I am looking at a player who is already in his prime. I don't know if he is dominating the Under-17, Under-21 and Under-23 levels because he is one of the best youth players in the world, or if he is a man at his physical peak competing against boys that are still learning how to adapt their precocious talents to the mental chess-match that is international football.
I do not know if there is sense in waiting five years for him to develop before giving him a senior cap, or if we should forget about him if he isn't good enough in the present-day since in five years he will have started the physical decline all of us humans experience as we age.
When we give full senior international caps to "young" stars aged 22, 21, 20, 19 or less, I do not know if we will get 10 years of international service from them, or 2 years followed by an inexplicable drop in form.
Some people say this is not important. So long as XYZ is good this year, they feel we can use him this year, and if he depreciates next year, we can drop him.
They are wrong.
At the very least, the Eagles (and Falcons) should be run in 4-year cycles. Managers should be given 4-year contracts. We should not hire anyone that we won't be able to trust for 4 years, even if there is a period of struggle within that period.
That manager needs to work with a mostly stable set of players for four years. I am not saying there won't be changes to the starting 11 or to the squad, but that such changes should be fine-tuning, and not wholesale changes.
The manager's 4-year contract will contain two Nations Cup tournaments and end at the World Cup. For the first of the Nations Cup tournaments, he needs to start (from the qualifiers) with the still-relevant players from the prior manager's tenure and supplement them with newly promoted players from the youth national teams or newly scouted/recruited players from domestic or foreign clubs. That first Nations Cup tournament (including the qualifiers) should help him in the fine-tuning process ahead of the second Nations Cup, by which time he should have the settled and defined squad/starters that he intends to deploy at the World Cup.
Make no mistake. The instability in our football cost us at the 1998, 2002 and 2010 World Cups. We didn't qualify for the 2006 World Cup though there was a degree of stability in the managerial position (up until it became clear we were in danger of not qualifying), but a collaborative effort on this 12-page thread from the Nigerian Football Fan Forum lists some 135 distinct players used by Christian Chukwu in just 3 years as Eagles manager (an astonishing average of 45 players capped per year) -- that is NOT stability.
It is difficult to make a 4-year plan when the basic information you need for planning purposes cannot be trusted. Some of the best national teams in the world, and some of the world's top managers, have dropped or ignored superstar players because they didn't fit into the plan. Sometimes it is a question of style and formation, sometimes a question of temperament and personal chemistry, but sometimes it is a question of age.
For example, if you are at the start of a 4-year contract as Eagles manager and you had to choose between two players who are relatively close in talent/ability, except one of them will be 26 in four years time (i.e. at the next World Cup), while the other one will be 34, who would you build your team around? This example has real world implications. It has been particularly interesting over the last 7 years to observe the players who are "officially" the same age or younger than Osaze Odemwingie. One gets the impression that appropriately-aged players are kept out of the team by players who are actually at a point in their careers that they should be thinking about international retirement ... not that you can blame them exactly, because most of them (the "retirement" players) were kept out of the team when they were in their prime by other players who probably should have retired from international football before the 2002 Nations Cup.
Mind you, the fact that a player is at the age of international retirement does NOT mean they are washed up, or that they don't have a few good years of football left. To the contrary, they will be better able to extend their club careers, and play successfully at the highest level if they spare their bodies the extra stress in their latter career years.
Not only do we need reliable information (including birth-dates) in order to make longer-term plans, but the uncertainty surrounding our players' ages makes long-term planning dangerous! Managers (and fans) tend to be loyal to players who have delivered for them in the past. We suffered in 1999-2002 principally because Johannes Bonfrere could not think beyond the players who won the 1996 Olympics for him, and we spent the rest of the decade struggling (unsuccessfully so far) to catch up to where we should have been in the rebuilding process. Older fans of Nigeria recall we came to grief in 1982 because we reinstated veterans of our successful teams of 1975-1980 rather than rebuild. And it isn't just a Nigerian phenomenon; by mid-2010, some Egyptian fans felt legendary manager Hassan Shehata was holding on to the Abou Treika generation longer than was rational.
This kind of excess stability is more problematic if the coach (and the fans) are operating on the assumption that a player is in his 20s (or lower 30s) when he is in fact in his 30s (or upper 30s). Indeed, part of the Nigeria story has been fans, journalists and administrators insisting we show patience and keep the faith with "new" players who shine like stars in their first 2 or 3 years with the Eagles and then fade. "Give him time," "He is a baller", "You cannot discard young players like that," "He has X more years of top-class football," "Form is temporary and a classy player like him will bounce back in due course".
We've generally stuck with each of these players until to the bitter end, continuing to give them chance after chance, year after year, long after their net contribution goes from positive territory (i.e. making the collective better by their presence) to a flat zero (i.e. anonymously on the field, neither adding nor subtracting anything from the collective performance), and even beyond the point their performance drifts into negative territory (i.e. making the team worse by being on the field).
How can you make medium-term and long-term plans when you can not trust the information upon which you are supposed to base the plan? This doesn't matter so much to the Nigerian Football Federation, because they never plan beyond the next 24 hours. Heck, our youth national teams are essentially useless, and they don't care, so long as they get a cut from the agents who use our youth national teams to market "young" players.
See what I am doing there? Generalizing. Acting as if all of them are age-cheats, when it is possible some of them are not. Maybe most of them are not. But how can I put any confidence in the documents when the NFF is content to have all documents subject to doubt.
The NFF is a joke. Where other Associations/Federations have long maintained residence on the internet, the Nigerian Football Federation alternates between having no website and having a poor imitation of a website. During one of the periods of poor websites, the NFF published a date-of-birth for Obafemi Martins that was 7 years earlier than his "official" date-of-birth, prompting Newcastle United fans to sing in the terraces that they didn't mind if he was "21 or 28" provided he scored goals for them. While the NFF blamed the website developer (and then took down the website, initiating another period of internet blackout), most of the world of football assumed (rightly or wrongly) that the NFF had accidentally exposed Martins' real age.
Nobody knows if the rumours are true of Martins or of any other player. They all just exist in this dark void of rumour and suspicion, and neither the NFF nor the players seem particularly keen on shedding light or creating trust. They are acting as though they prefer the current situation of pervasive suspicion, even though the European clubs are likely paying each of them less-than-the-otherwise-would, on the assumption that they are all closer to retirement than they profess. Yes, the superstars make millions, but how many of our internationals are superstars? How many of our players, scattered around the world in their hundreds are in the millionaire pay bracket? Has anyone noticed that the bigger clubs prefer to sign players from places with somewhat more reliable information, restricting our players to the lesser clubs in the lesser leagues?
None of the key parties involved in Nigerian football is concerned about it. Not the administrators, not the journalists, not the players, not the agents, and especially not the fans.
Last year, during the 2009 FIFA Under-17 World Championships (hosted by Nigeria), Adokiye Amiesimaka, an ex-international and ex-Chairman of Sharks FC, presented the Nigerian Football Federation with a golden opportunity to step up and shut-up the doubters, naysayers, cynics and critics who put an asterisk against all of our age-restricted successes and link the under-performance of our senior national team to the unreliability of our youth national teams as a source for future talent.
Adokiye revealed two members of the 2009 Under-17 team, Fortune Chukwudi and Kayode Olanrewaju, had tried out for the Sharks FC feeder team in 2002, registering themselves as being 18 years-old (the feeder team's designated catchment was 18 to 20 year-olds). Chukwudi made the team (and appears in the team photo below), while Kayode did not.
Seven years after trying out for Sharks FC as 18-year-olds, the two reemerged as "17-year-olds" on the Eaglets team.
Or so Adokiye claimed.
This was the NFF's opportunity, in front of a global audience, to counter-attack, to disprove Adokiye's allegations, to disgrace Adokiye and send a message to anyone, anywhere in the world, who would dare accuse Nigerian players of being age-cheats.
And the NFF did .... nothing. Like the kid caught with his hand in the cookie jar, they grinned sheepishly and waiting to see if daddy (FIFA) would flog them. Daddy decided it wasn't worth it, and the NFF just carried on pretending not to have noticed the controversy swirling around them.
For the record, experts do not treat MRI scans as conclusive evidence of anyone's age, as noted in this article by ace sports reporter Colin Udoh (more on this later).
Fortune Chukwudi, who stood to lose the most from the air of suspicion, did not so much as lift a finger to defend himself. Unsurprisingly, he has not won a contract in Europe. Nor will he ever. It is one thing for European club managers to pretend they do not trust a player's age when signing him, and something else (in front of their fans, their media and their boards of directors) to sign a player so openly exposed as Fortune was.
Seven months ago, I wrote this post about Suliat Yusuf, a 15-year-old girl who could be a future stars of Nigerian women's football. There is a video accompanying the piece, showing Suliat's neighbourhood, her former home, her training ground and (briefly) her school. There is significantly more information about her in the accompanying CBC article (link provided in the post). The CBC's reporter went to Suliat's school, talked to Suliat's classmates and even interviewed her school principal.
Those kind of feature stories are done all the time by foreign media outlets, giving foreign audiences all sorts of in-depth background and personal information about their favourite athletes. You rarely, if ever, see such in-depth features on the life-stories and life-history of Nigerian players of the last 25 years; and if you find any, the dates are conspicuously missing from the report.
It wasn't always this way. Once upon a time, in the 1970s and earlier, there was so much more known about internationals; the secondary schools they graduated from (and when they graduated) were as well-known as the clubs they were playing for as internationals. Even today, older fans will regale you with stories of the exploits of those earlier internationals in inter-scholastic matches, schoolboy "Principal's Cup" matches and national "Academicals".
These days, it is as though players emerge from a black hole, a void, a vacuum. They have no past, no history, no one who remembers them.
Adokiye's accusations should have prompted investigative journalists to delve deeply into the "Fortune Chukwudi Story". We should have been introduced to Fortune's parents, his classmates, told about the first time he played Inter-House football at school and how he made the school team. We should have seen pictures of Fortune with his schoolboy team-mates, and watched interviews of those same classmates (who would all be 17, just slightly older than they were in the pictures). People from the neighbourhood who remember watching Fortune as a 13-, 14-, 15-, and 16-year-old, and thinking he had a bright future should have come forward and spoke.
Most importantly, Sharks Football Club of Port Harcourt should have been asked point-blank if Adokiye was lying.
NONE OF THIS HAPPENED.
Frankly, most of the "proof" I suggested above could be faked, but the NFF (and Chukwudi) didn't even bother. I can understand the NFF's apathy (they really don't give a rat's ass about Nigerian football, and are happy with the kickbacks they get from agents who use our youth national teams as shop windows), but doesn't Fortune Chukwudi understand he will never get to Europe at this point if he doesn't provide at least a semblance of a self-defence? Alas, Fortune Chukwudi's history, his past remains a carefully obscured mystery. Sadly, when John Obuh, coach of the 2009 Eaglets, was promoted from Under-17 coach to Under-21 coach, he took Fortune with him to the Under-21 team. This is another part of the problem. Youth national team coaches know losing honestly with real youths can destroy their careers ... while winning dishonestly by playing men against boys is a definite boost to their careers.
In fact, if you permit me to digress, between cheating at age-restricted international competitions and cheating in the domestic professional club leagues, there is no way of knowing if "successful" Nigerian coaches are successful because of their quality or because their unethical practices were more successful than the unethical practices of their rivals. This makes it next-to-impossible to choose a coach for the Eagles, and opens the door to the continued waste of money on European coaches who never do anything worthy of their excessive pay packages.
I don't understand why everyone (fans inclusive) are comfortable with the current state of affairs.
Quite a while ago I stopped taking our age-restricted successes seriously. All I did was observe to see if any of the "youngsters" looked good enough to be fast-tracked to the senior Eagles team. Even that is not an easy thing to do, because you have to study their mental approach to the game rather than their physical prowess against opponents who may (or may not) be significantly younger than them.
And even that little is denied me.
Three-and-half years ago, in the course of an investigation of sexual harassment in Nigerian women's football, journalist China Acheru met the 23-year-old wife of Dele Ajiboye, then the goalkeeper of the Eaglets, our Under-17 national team. Acheru dug deeper into the story, and Ajiboye was a married, 29-year-old father of two, whose official documents said he was a unmarried 17-year-old.
Wanting to avoid a scandal that could earn Nigeria a ban (and probably realizing a society tolerant of age-cheats wouldn't thank him if he went public), Acheru decided to secretly and quietly approach Taiwo Ogunjobi, who was then the Secretary-General of the Nigerian Football Federation, with his discovery.
Acheru describes on his blog what happened next.
Taiwo Ogunjobi looked me in the eyes and said the goalkeeper would not be dropped from the team. In his exact words.
“It is four months to the World Cup. Where do you want me to get another goalkeeper?”
That keeper went on to play in the World Cup saving penalties left, right and center from kids at least 13 years younger than he was.
We believe he will take over from Vincent Enyeama but he is older than Vincent so who are we fooling?
Earlier in this post, I posted this link to an article by Colin Udoh, who is quite possibly Nigeria's foremost sports journalist. He doesn't name any names, but you can see now that he is alluding to China Acheru's discoveries vis-a-vis Dele Ajiboye.
Neither Acheru nor Udoh had the courage to do what Adokiye did ... go public.
Look, I am not trying to destroy any player's career. I am a human being too. Like them, I am just trying to make it in this world. Like them I have to deal with a world that does not always give me the opportunities and chances I feel I deserve.
But ... come ... on!!!
It has got to stop. It is so self-defeating! We are all losers because of it. Nigerian football is the weaker because of it. The Eagles are weaker because of it. And it is not even getting any of the cheating players the big money they think they deserve. Only the European and South American agents (and their Nigerian middlemen) are making any money.
As I said earlier, we have to fix our economies (broadly speaking) and fix our domestic leagues (specifically) to give these players accessible opportunities closer to home ... opportunities they don't have to cheat to get.
Some fans will probably accuse me of putting Nigeria in danger of a FIFA ban by being so frank about age-cheating ... but you know what? This is not about the past.
The past is history. The past is done. Whoever did whatever, I wish them well. This is not about FIFA, though I do hope FIFA understands that banning Nigeria in 2011 will be as useless and pointless as the 1989-1991 ban was. Trying to fix the past is a fool's errand; working to change the future is the wise man's task.
My concern is for the future.
Our problem, as always is the people who have the most ability to lead the charge for substantive reform are always the same people who benefit most from the absence of substantive reform.
In any case, Vexman's suggestion that Africans who openly discuss this are traitors to Africa .... is rubbish!
Those Africans who sustain this state of affairs by omission or commission are the real traitors. They have already betrayed our present-day, and are working hard on betraying our future.