An Age-Old Problem

While FIFA deals with a blisteringly hot spotlight off the pitch, on it, not one but two World Cups have transpired, or at least are transpiring: the Women’s World Cup in Canada, and the U-20 World Cup in New Zealand. We’ll focus here on the U-20’s, where the knockout rounds have taken on a very African flavor.

Now, let’s start by noting the continental spread of the representatives in the 24-team field. The slated field of 32 in Russia three years hence, for comparison, is that the host gets one spot, the non-host segment of UEFA will get 13 spots, CAF will get 5, CONMEBOL and AFC will get 4 1/2 spots each, CONMEBOL will get 3 1/2, and OFC will get their customary half a spot. It’s the same layout we’ve had since Germany 2006. The women’s field, expanded to 24 this year, reads one for the host, 8 for UEFA, five for AFC, 3 1/2 for CONCACAF, 3 for CAF, 2 1/2 for CONMEBOL, and 1 for OFC.

Outside that, though, attention paid to continental quality goes completely out the window.

Ever since the U-20’s expanded to 24 teams in 1995, it’s sat like this: The host gets one. UEFA is here granted six spots. OFC gets one spot. The other four continents get four spots apiece. Only the absolute minimum of attention has been paid in any respect to continental quality; it’s all about equal representation. The U-17 World Cup, taking place later this year in Chile, has an identical layout.

The Olympics, as of London 2012, show a 16-team setup for the men. UEFA gets four spots (one of which was eaten by host Great Britain), CAF and AFC get 3 1/2 spots each. CONCACAF and CONMEBOL get two spots each. OFC gets one. The main shift in spots, in recent Olympics, has revolved around whether it’s Africa or Asia that gets four spots and which one gets three. As for the women’s 12-team setup in London: host one spot, OFC one spot, two apiece to everybody else.

The Confederations Cup is simply the host, the World Cup champion, and the otherwise titleholders of each continental competition.

The women’s U-20’s last year in Canada showed the hosts, four for UEFA, three for AFC and CONCACAF, two for CAF and CONMEBOL, and one for OFC. The U-17’s have in their last three editions showed three each per confederation except OFC’s one, with the host simply taking from their continent’s allotment.

So that’s your stage set.

In the men’s World Cup, part of the conversation revolves around how Africa is still waiting for their first trip to the semifinals. But it also revolves around how much of that is due to having so many representatives than Europe. Measuring by top-four showings, UEFA has 56, CONMEBOL has 22, AFC (South Korea, 2002) and CONCACAF (United States, 1930) have one each. In the U-20’s, this is not a problem: Senegal and Mali have gotten there this year alone, alongside Brazil and Serbia (Brazil beat Senegal 5-0 in one semifinal; Serbia beat Mali 2-1 in extra time in the other.) Counting this year, CONMEBOL has 29 top-fours, and UEFA has 28. CAF, though, has 13 of their own, including Ghana’s championship in 2009. AFC and CONCACAF have four each, and even OFC has gotten there twice, at least while Australia was still among them. The U-17’s are even stronger for Africa: they actually lead in titles, with six, which is all Europe and South America have managed combined. Top-fours read UEFA 18, CAF 16, CONMEBOL 16, CONCACAF 4, AFC 4, OFC 1 (from Australia).

Clearly, the speculation that Africa could break through at any moment in the World Cup has foundation. They’ve long since broken through at the youth level, in ways that Asia, North America and Oceania could only dream of. And yet, when those young stars get to the senior team, things go sour and the success fades away. The results are not only subpar but often catastrophic, with only three quarterfinal appearances to show for their efforts: Cameroon in Italy 1990, Senegal in Korea/Japan 2002, and Ghana in South Africa 2010.

What exactly is going on here? Why are the African teams getting worse as they age?

In 2009, when Andrew Guest of Pitch Invasion, who has logged playing time in Malawi and Angola and thus had first-hand knowledge from the ground, took a stab at the question, his answer was simple: the African players are lying about their age. On one level, the problem is one of basic infrastructure: birth certificates aren’t available in many parts of the continent, and families can easily legitimately lose track of how old someone actually is. If you’ve ever seen one of those reports where someone in an obscure rural part of the world claims to be something like 130 years old and how that’s relatively normal in those parts, that’s an offshot of what you’re, as Guest figures, dealing with here. Lacking a verifiable way to count someone’s age, and with incentives often present to be considered one of the local elders, people will find reasons to tack on numbers to their age for personal, local, national or spiritual gain. There was even a study published in 201o in Current Gerontology and Geriatrics Research, ‘Typologies Of Extreme Longevity Myths‘. It also notes the tendency of people to fudge their age up or down (usually up) to either join or avoid the military, depending on their preference; deaths may go unreported in order for the next of kin to continue to get pension checks; and that the occasional person will decide to try for the ‘oldest person in the world’ title and add however many years they think it will take to get there.

In the world of sports, the incentive is to usually to adjust your age down. Not only would an older player be able to compete in a competition they’re supposed to be too old for- college athletics, the Little League World Series- but once the player goes pro, appearing to be younger can make teams see more potential for their future and sign them to better contracts, or sign them period. (The exception is women’s gymnastics, where younger competitors have the benefit of more flexible bodies, but where there’s also a minimum age limit. There, expect years to get added on.) Sometimes this is done solely by the athlete, but a lot of the time, the deed is done by a coach or their relevant local or national governing body, interested in a win by any means necessary.

Guest brings up Gambia and Malawi in his overview of the topic, and at one point mentions the name Freddy Adu, who before he capped for the United States had the option of going in with Ghana. The age alterations were in the realm of ‘badly-kept secret’ and Guest would often watch his Malawian colleagues go through the newspaper pointing out particularly obviously ridiculous claims. Players have entered the U-17’s and then retired a year or two later because of their actual age. A Wikipedia page on the topic also draws out Cameroon, South Africa, Kenya, Senegal and Cote d’Ivoire in Africa alone (Asia and Latin America see facetime as well). But by far the most scrutiny has fallen on Nigeria, where suspicion about player ages has been a quasi-national pastime for the past quarter century. Much age fraud revolves around adding or shedding one or two years in the relevant direction. With Nigeria, the possibility is in play to remove an entire decade- effectively an entire professional playing career’s worth- from one’s age. Or more. The Guardian gave one account of a 34-year old player claiming an age of 21.

Now, this is the kind of thing that tends to draw preventative measures if done too often, and indeed, leading into the men’s 2009 U-17 World Cup (in Nigeria), FIFA announced that henceforth, all players would be ordered to submit to an MRI of their wrist. What that’s supposed to do is provide a look at how far along bones are in growing and fusing together, a process that completes around age 17-18. The idea is, if the bones are completely fused, you’re probably too old to be playing in the U-17’s, and lacking accurate birth certificates, it’s enough to get a player disqualified from participating. The test is considered 99% accurate in determining age… up to the age of 17. After that, accuracy drops, which isn’t much help in figuring out the U-20’s. But it was enough to get that year’s African representatives- Algeria, Burkina Faso, Gambia, Malawi and Nigeria- to run some tests of their own… followed shortly by Nigeria pulling half its squad and Malawi withdrawing a handful as well.

How coincidental.

In the years following, Congo-Brazzaville, Cote d’Ivoire, Somalia, Ghana and, of course, Nigeria have seen players busted by the MRI scan. Other nations haven’t waited for one to lodge complaints: Australia went in with Saudi Arabia to protest the makeup of groupmate Syria’s squad for the 2012 AFC U-19 Championship. after noticing that Syria’s roster contained six people with the same birthdate: January 1, 1993- aka the last day you could be born and still be eligible- and that the rest of the 23-man team was also born in January. The Syrians got to play anyway, and ended up beating Saudi Arabia 5-1 and drawing Australia 1-1 on the way to finishing second in the group and making the knockouts, where they lost to Uzbekistan in a penalty shootout in the quarterfinals.

Australia got to the semis, losing to an Iraqi team featuring six January births of their own. The average for a 23-man roster would be just short of two. China had eight of their own, but weren’t able to garner a single point in their group.

The MRI’s a start. But clearly, it’s not enough.

At least at senior level, the problem sorts itself out.

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