Tuesday 22 October 2013

Nigeria: Football, Age Determination and Record Keeping

Page to age rage
As the FIFA Under-17 World Cup 2013 plays away in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) we find ourselves being ambivalent about the players my other footballing country of Nigeria has fielded. I support England be reason of birth and the Netherlands having lived there for 12 years. [Wikipedia]
We as fans of a football loving country are always taken by the amazing performance of our players, as somewhere in our minds we wonder whether the players are really as young as they state they are.
In 2008, David Moyes, then Everton manager made this comment about Yakubu Aiyegbeni, “He's only 25, albeit a Nigerian 25, and so if that is his age he's still got a good few years ahead of him.” [BBC News]
Whatever he might have been alluding to, he created the perception probably long held that some Nigerian players might well be many years older than the ages presented in their contractual documents.
Age fraud and overwhelming successes
Age fraud in association football is well documented in Africa and Asia, Nigeria was even suspended and sanctioned for fielding over-aged players in certain FIFA tournaments. [Wikipedia]
Nigeria is the most successful team in the U-17 World Cup tournament having been in six finals, winning three, followed by Brazil in five finals, winning two, but we must come to a stage where we are confident that we are playing on a level field without taking advantage of our opponents.
We must be in the eligible age range and what should show is our football talent and prowess in our taking the laurels. This however is not to take away from the successes of teams past and the pride we have in all their victories.
Some science to the rescue
In 2009, FIFA introduced the mandatory use of Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) which apparently has 99% accuracy in determining how old a person is up until the age of 17 after which it is difficult for medical expertise to determine the age that accurately. [BBC Sport]
The MRI system of age determination checks the grade of ossification/fusion in the distal radius [bones at the wrist] where fusion suggests the subject is above the age of 17 and thereby ineligible to compete in the FIFA Under-17 World Cup tournament. [NIH] [BBC Sport]
Courtesy of Wikipedia [Source]

Many African countries first rejected this age determination process, but it is the best science could do for countries that have poor documentation processes that have no proper trust or verification systems to ascertain the provenance or authenticity of birth certificates or declarations. [BBC News]
My scepticism is predicated on whether our kind of physiology is catered for and whether the scanners are calibrated to account to possible racial differences in bone structure, environment, diet and other factors. However, this is the best system we have to rely on now.
A poor record-keeping culture
We do not have proper systems to register life births in hospitals or maternity homes, our municipalities have poor record keeping systems for the registration of births, of marriages and of deaths; beyond which there is no centralised archiving system to maintain such information if acquired.
What we have adopted is a system of swearing affidavits, many of which are taken on self-recognisance given the weight of a notary public and then rubber stamped by the judicial arm of government.
These poor archiving systems permeate all works life; in government, in the private sector and in academia. There was an instance where a PhD holder from a reputable institution in the UK had to present all certificates he had acquired dating back to primary school after a 25-year career, with him approaching 50 to take up an appointment in Nigeria.
I dare say that white Africans are far ahead on the record keeping and documentation front; in another world, they would probably be able to produce enough documentary evidence to lay claim to anything even if acquired fraudulently by their forebears.
The fun in record keeping
I watch programmes on British television like "Who Do You Think You Are?" and I am always impressed with how researchers could trawl through archives going back centuries to piece together genealogies, ancestries and histories. We probably have just the adulterated and sometimes exaggerated or fabled oral histories to go by – we need to pay more heed to record keeping and documentation.
The idea that our sports ambassadors have to be herded like cattle through MRI scan turnstiles to determine the ages of the participants is degrading enough, if not disgraceful, but we brought this ignominious exercise upon ourselves.
We must address this now
The FIFA U-16 World Championship founded in 1985 and then renamed to FIFA U-17 World Cup has been running for 28 years. We should have learnt the lessons by now to ensure any new entrants to the competition have a good paper trail of birth certificates, medical histories, school reports and other supporting documentation not to have to suffer the indignities of an MRI scan.
This must be integral to our health policy, our education policy and other population census documentation and government planning policies. We need to get to a stage where the writing on any document emerging from our countries is worth the paper it is written on and accepted as authentic by any verification or certification organisation anywhere in the world.

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