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Age fraud is a term for age fabrication or the use of false documentation to gain an advantage over opponents. In football, it is common amongst players belonging to nations where records are not easily verifiable. The media often refer to the player with false documentation as an "age-cheat".
There are several reasons why players choose to use false documentation. In countries that could be considered poor, European scouts are looking for young talented players to sign for a European club. The players know that there is a lesser chance of being signed if they are, for example, 23 years old as opposed to 17 years old as there would be less time for the club to develop the player.
FIFA say that "over-age players have been wrongly entered into various youth competitions, often benefiting from an unfair advantage due to their greater physical maturity compared to players of the proper age."
In some cases, it is possible for the player not to know their own date of birth and make an educated guess when it comes to gaining official documents.
One of the best known examples of a player falsifying documentations is Cameroon's international football defender Tobie Mimboe who held several documents during the course of his career that indicated he became younger as time went by.
In 1989 Nigeria's youth national teams were banned by FIFA for fielding over-age players in FIFA-organised youth tournaments. The birth dates of three players at the 1988 Olympics were different than the ones used by those players at previous tournaments. The resulting ban lasted for two years and Nigeria was also stripped of its right to host the 1991 FIFA World Youth Championship.
South African journalist Thomas Kwenaite uncovered several "age-cheats" representing South Africa who participated in an Under-15 age group tournament hosted in France. The captain of that side was a 24-year-old third-year University student from Port Elizabeth. After revealing the age of the player, the player's father took Kwenaite to the South African press ombudsman for "slander" before withdrawing his complaint after it was found that school records show that the player would have started school aged 2 years old. Kwenaite also claims that he was told that he was "unpatriotic" for reporting the story.
In late 1999, Anthony Kojo Williams was appointed as head of the Nigeria Football Federation. He lasted less than three months in the job and was dismissed because, in NFF board member Zaria Sani's words "he has failed to carry the other board members along" In the 2010 BBC World service documentary Africa Kicks, Williams stated that the Nigerian Government were "afraid of change". He went on to say, "I don't see Nigerian football getting out of the quagmire, the problem it is in today is because it [corruption] is getting deeper and deeper and deeper. From time to time we get flashes where we do well in some competition with overage players and we celebrate. That was one of the issues I looked at, we can't keep using overage players. We use over-age players for junior championships, I know that. Why not say it? It's the truth. We always cheat. It's a fact. When you cheat, you deprive the young stars that are supposed to play in these competitions their rights."
In 2003, Kenya's Under-17 national team were dissolved by the Kenyan Government after some players revealed themselves to be over 18 years of age. The same year, Ghana's Deputy Youth and Sports Minister Joe Aggrey said he wished to stop age cheats.
In 2009, Nigerian journalist Adokiye Amiesimaka accused the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) of being complicit with age-cheats because it gave the nation a competitive advantage. He had what he considered to be proof that some players were overage but the NFF were not interested in taking his complaint seriously.
In December 2010, the Senegal Football Federation withdrew Diawandou Diagne, Hervé Diédhiou and Samba Diallo from their under-17 national team after it was found they were overage following an MRI scan.
In February 2011, Ivorian football manager and SuperSport television pundit Mamadou Gaye responded to a question asking who he thought would win the 2011 U-17 World Cup with "...any of the four team representing us [Africa] in the world cup U17 can win the trophee (sic), because at that level we like cheating on our age."
The Asian Football Confederation ejected DPR Korea, Tajikistan and Iraq from the 2008 AFC U-16 Championship after qualifying, and Cambodia, Macau, Bangladesh, Tajikistan, Bhutan and Kyrgyzstan were ejected from the qualifying after being found to have fielded over-age players, while Yemen were ejected from the tournament for fielding an overage player.
AFC introduced age detection methods in its age group competitions in 2000.
Dave Bowler, author of Winning Isn't Everything: Biography of Sir Alf Ramsey, claims that Englishman Alf Ramsey forged documents so that his date of birth changed from 1920 to 1922. Bowler alleges that Ramsey feared that come the end of the Second World War, he would be considered too old to be offered a professional contract.
In the sacandal known as the Cachirules, all of Mexico's international teams were banned for two years by FIFA from international competition in 1988 when the Under-20 national team was proven to consciously field several over aged players.
During the Spanish Civil War, many documents containing birth details of Spanish citizens were destroyed. Many South Americans used the situation to their advantage and claimed that their parents were of Spanish origin in the hope that they could start a new life in Spain or become professional players in Spain.
Brazilian Carlos Alberto de Oliveira Júnior won the 2003 FIFA World Youth Championship using fake documents to claim that he was born on 24 January 1983. Because of this, he was banned for 360 days from football.
An Ecuadorian footballer, real name Ángel Cheme, played the majority of his professional career as Gonzalo Chila, which was the real name of a player three years his junior whom he had met when they both had trials at a local club, thus enabling him to play in age-restricted matches for three years after he was entitled to do so; he was eventually suspended for two years.
Introduction of MRI
MRI is considered to be 99% accurate until the age of 17, after which it becomes harder for medical professionals to calculate a person's age. Professor Jiri Dvorak of FIFA said: "The efficiency stops at 17 and it's just pure coincidence that Fifa made their competition an under-17 event". Every bone in the arm and leg has an end plate from which bones grow. When the growth is completed (usually around the age of 17-18), then this end plate disappears on the MRI scans. Dvorak concedes that the scan results "will be unjust to 1% of all examined players".
The researchers had classified the scans into 6 grading system, as follows:
|Grade||Comment||Eligibility for U16/U17 tournament|
|1||Completely unfused (physis may be thin)||Player eligible|
|2||Early fusion: minimal hyper intensity within physis|
|3||Trabecular fusion of less than 50% of radial cross-sectional area (number of sections (full width) with fusion below 50%)|
|4||Trabecular fusion of more than 50% of radial cross-sectional area (number of sections (full width) above 50%) or more than 5 mm non-fused on any one section|
|5||Residual physis, less than 5 mm on any one section|
|6||Completely fused||Player not eligible|
Of the 429 MRI done by the Asian Football Confederation in 2007, 10 players (or 2.7%) were found to be over the age of 16 years in an otherwise Under-15 tournament. In 2008, one out of the 116 MRI conducted had full fusion.
Not everybody was pleased by the introduction of MRI, Nigeria had lost 15 players after they were proven to be over-age. Nigeria's Football Federation President Sani Lulu said: "I’ll not use the MRI to disqualify my players." He felt that FIFA had sprung their decision to use MRI upon the nations.
Lulu wanted to invite the parents of the national under-17 players to verify their sons' ages. Nigerian Sports Minister Sani Ndanusa dismissed the parent verification system and stated the "whole world has gone digital and we're following suit. We're no longer in the analogue era."
Lulu stated that NFF did not need to scan players as it wasn't in the competition's rules and regulations. Ndanusa stated: "FIFA wants MRI scans used and we're going to adhere to that, simple."
For the same tournament, the Gambia Football Association had scanned 53 of its players and "few" failed. It was suggested that "two or three" whom the MRI scan had revealed to be overage were participants at the 2009 African Under-17 Championship.
In August 2016, it was reported that 26 Nigeria U17 players had failed MRI tests prior to their match against Niger U17's.
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