Cameroon have been humiliated after 32 youth players failed age tests demanded by Samuel Eto’o… but they’re just the latest nation caught out by super-accurate MRI scans that have helped FIFA foil the fraudsters
- Cameroon’s under-17 team was preparing for Nations Cup qualified this month
- But it was discovered that 21 members of the 30-strong squad were over age
- When reinforcements were drafted in, a further 11 of them failed age tests
- It followed an insistence from Cameroon federation chief Eto’o on MRI scans
- 99 per cent accurate until age 17, the tests look at bone fusion in players’ wrists
- Since FIFA rolled out testing, a number of countries have been caught cheating
It has been a hugely embarrassing episode for the proud nation of Cameroon and their ‘Indomitable Lions’ football teams.
Their Under-17 side were preparing to play Central African qualifying games in the Nations Cup this month when it was found 21 of the 30-strong squad failed age tests.
Fresh players were quickly drafted in by coach Jean Pierre Fiala but, in a further humiliation, it was discovered that 11 of the additions were also over-age.
Cameroon football president Samuel Eto’o was rocked by news that 32 players in his nation’s Under-17 squad have now failed age tests ahead of their fixtures this month
It has proved to be an embarrassing episode for the Cameroon football federation Fecafoot
It’s left Fiala scrambling around for enough players to field a team as Cameroon prepare for fixtures against Congo, Chad, DR Congo and Central African Republic in just a few days’ time.
All this reflects badly on Cameroon and has made global headlines but the crusade to stamp out the practice of falsifying ages on player registrations – led by national hero Samuel Eto’o – is a sincere and noble one.
They are far from the first age cheats in football. There have been many instances across Africa, Asia and the Americas, especially in youth football where older and therefore often bigger and stronger players make a difference.
It feels the net is closing on the fraudsters, however, thanks to medical technology.
In 2009, FIFA introduced Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) testing at the Under-17 World Cup to determine whether players were over age or not.
In his role at Fecafoot, Eto’o has been desperately trying to eradicate the problem of age fraud
Football age cheats timeline
1988 – Mexico banned from 1990 World Cup after their Under-20 team knowingly fielded several over-age players.
1989 – Nigeria’s youth sides banned by FIFA for two years for fielding over-age players. The birth dates of three players at the 1988 Olympics were different to ones used by those players at previous tournaments.
2003 – Kenya’s Under-17 team disbanded by the national government after some players revealed they were over 18.
2008 – The Asian Football Confederation kicked out North Korea, Tajikistan and Iraq after they qualified for the Under-16 Championship for fielding over-age players. Yemen were ejected from the tournament itself for the same offence.
2009 – MRI scans introduced by FIFA at the Under-17 World Cup in Nigeria. 15 players in the hosts’ squad had to be dropped.
2010 – Senegal’s football federation withdrew Diawandou Diagne, Herve Diedhiou and Samba Diallo from their Under-17 team after MRI scans revealed they were over-age.
2010 – Eight players banned from the Asian Under-16 Championship.
2017 – Cameroon block 14 players from going to the Under-17 AFCON in Gabon after failed age tests.
2019 – African federation CAF found Guinea had fabricated the age of two players, Aboubacar Conte and Ahmed Tidiane Keita at the 2019 Africa Under-17 Cup of Nations. Guinea were kicked out the 2019 FIFA Under-17 World Cup.
MRI scans of players’ wrists look at how fused the bone structure is and the tests are considered to be 99 per cent accurate until the age of 17.
The former FIFA chief medical officer Jiri Dvorak co-authored a paper on the subject in 2006.
Nigeria was hosting that 2009 World Cup and tried to resist the MRI tests. With good reason as it turned out 15 players in their squad were over-age and had to be dropped.
Despite the roll-out of such scans ahead of continental and global youth tournaments, quite a few nations have been caught out.
In December 2010, Senegal had to withdraw three players from their under-17 team after they failed the age tests.
Guinea lost their place at the 2019 Under-17 World Cup after it was found the ages of two players at the Africa Under-17 Cup of Nations had been falsified.
Age or identity fraud continues to be a major source of concern for African football as a whole
In Asia, where age detection techniques were brought in as early as 2000, cheating on age was found to be rife.
North Korea, Tajikistan and Iraq were kicked out of the 2008 AFC Under-16 Championship after they and five other nations were found to have fielded over-age players in qualifying. Yemen were expelled from the actual tournament for the same crime.
But these were just the latest in a long line of age cheating incidents in football.
Mexico were famously disqualified from the 1990 World Cup because of the Cachirules scandal in which their under-20 team knowingly fielded at least four over-age players.
Nigeria’s youth sides were banned by FIFA in 1989 after they amended the birth dates of various players at the 1988 Olympic Games from certificates seen for the same players at earlier tournaments.
‘Peter Pan’ Cameroon international Tobie Mimboe famously became younger with every passing competition
It isn’t the first time Cameroon has been caught up in all of this either. There was the hilarious case of Tobie Mimboe, nicknamed ‘Peter Pan’, who became younger and younger with every passing tournament.
And in 2017, the Cameroon federation Fecafoot, blocked 14 players from going to the Under-17 AFCON in Gabon after they failed tests.
When Eto’o, the former Barcelona, Inter Milan and Chelsea striker who played 118 times for his country, became Fecafoot president in December 2021 he vowed to take decisive action to clamp down on the illegal practice.
Statements that followed this latest embarrassment made clear the MRI tests were conducted on the ‘strict instructions’ of Eto’o ‘in order to put to an end to the tampering of civil status records which have, in the past, tarnished the image of the apex body of Cameroon football.’
So this short-term pain for Cameroon should lead to long-term gain as they clean up their act and set an example to other nations.
Which all begs the question – why cheat in the first place?
One simple reason is just that – cheating to win football matches and tournaments, an appetite to gain the prestige that comes from success.
Another theory that has been advanced is that it levels the playing field for African footballers who want to reach the top of the game.
The episode has been embarrassing for Cameroon as a nation and for their football teams
Scouts from all the leading European clubs scour Africa for talented players and an offer to move there is transformative for someone who might have grown up in poverty without access to proper football equipment or coaching.
It should also be considered that in some nations, birth records simply aren’t kept so a player would find it incredibly difficult to prove their true age even if they wanted to.
But the advent of almost flawless technology to determine player ages should eradicate the practice – if the high-profile embarrassment of Cameroon doesn’t act as enough of a deterrent.
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