FIFA U-17 World Cup 2017: Nigeria, despite being five-time champions, reeling under age fraud

Is there a bigger paradox in international football than Nigeria?

Consider this: The Nigerians are five-time FIFA U-17 World Cup winners. That’s without counting the three times they lost in the final. And yet, when it comes to the men’s FIFA World Cup, the African side have fallen woefully short of expectations time after time. In fact, the current World No 39 team have only qualified for the prestigious tournament five times.

Nigeria's players celebrate with the FIFA U-17 World Cup in 2015. AFP

Nigeria's players celebrate with the FIFA U-17 World Cup in 2015. AFP

So what explains this strange case of diminishing footballing capabilities of Nigerian footballers?

“Everybody has the same question,” says Rabiu Afolabi, a former Nigeria player told journalists when he visited Mumbai in May along with Spanish legend Carles Puyol.

“At the youth level players are really hungry to prove themselves. They want to make it out of their misery and poverty to become an elite player. But once they are promoted to the senior team…that’s another story. Probably a few relax. Many think they have already achieved their dream, which in reality is just the beginning,” he added.

Afolabi went on to say that Nigeria was not a superpower in African football anymore.

“To train Nigerian kids to play football is really easy. They naturally have the instincts to play the sport. The basics are there. But Nigeria is not a superpower in Africa anymore. Now you go to any corner of the world, and you see people playing or following football. Countries like Ghana, Ivory Coast have now become big. Even countries like Guinea and Togo have raised their game and now compete with the big guns.

“Moreover some of the African Francophone countries’ players have been trained in France. They’re born there and learn the sport in the system there. Then when they grow up they choose to play for their country of origin. Look at
Emmanuel Adebayor. He grew up in France but played football for Togo,” added the 37-year-old, who has played for clubs like France’s Monaco.

However, what is really worrying for the average Nigerian football fan is the scourge of age fudging that is gnawing away at the once-strong roots of Nigerian football — the U-17 team.

Just last August, 26 players from Nigeria’s U-17 team failed age tests conducted before an African Cup of Nations (AFCON) qualifier against Niger. According to some reports, just two players from the first XI were under the age of 17.

Consequently, Nigeria could not qualify for the World Cup, to be held in India from 6 October. On the other hand, Niger will be playing in their maiden World Cup.

This is not the first time the African side has been hit by age fraud. Ahead of the 2013 U-17 World Cup, key players of the squad bound for the World Cup were found to be overage by wrist Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scans. Incidentally, FIFA introduced MRI scans to verify players’ ages at the 2009 U-17 World Cup, held in Nigeria.

On being asked how his country could bounce back from such situations during the U-17 draw on Friday, Nigerian football legend Nwankwo Kanu said: “The team was okay. But we couldn’t give our best. What you put in is what you get out.

And in our case, it was not good enough. It’s a good lesson for us. We have to now go back and learn from this edition.”

On pointedly being asked what the authorities in Nigeria are doing to curb the menace of age fraud, Kanu’s bizarre reply was: “If you believe everything that you hear, you have a big headache. The team is U-17 and no one is supposed to be over 17. So, I believe we know the rules and we know what we have to do, otherwise FIFA will sanction us and we don’t want that to happen. It’s football. If you don’t give your best, you don’t get results.”

Afolabi’s reply was even also equally strange. He had earlier mentioned that he wasn’t really in touch with the U-17 team but “followed their results”. On being asked about the menace of age fraud, he claimed: “Age fudging was an issue (in Nigeria), probably before but not anymore. Now there are a lot of tests, so I don’t think there are any issues.”

Updated Date: Jul 09, 2017 18:40 PM

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