By Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (April 29th 2023)
The latest batch of young African hopefuls are about to get their chance to shine on Africa’s greatest stage for their age-group. The Under-17 AFCON (Africa Cup of Nations) begins in Algeria tonight. One controversy has been skilfully headed off before it could damage the competition. Morocco’s youngsters will play in Constantine – the same city that was deprived of their presence during the CHAN (African Nations Championship) because Algeria insisted that Morocco’s carrier (Royal Air Maroc) would not be permitted direct access to Constantine. Negotiations failed as Morocco’s Football Federation insisted that nothing less would do.
A face-saving compromise was arranged by the Confédération Africaine de Football (CAF). The Moroccan delegation would fly directly to Constantine from Rabat, but it would be on a Romanian carrier. Face and honour saved, football was the winner.
The Stubborn Bane of Football’s Disease and the Cure?
The other controversy is even more stubborn. Age-cheating is the bane of football, not just African football, but has the cure become worse than the disease? I attended the Under-17 AFCON in Tanzania in 2019. Just before it was due to start Tanzania suffered a body blow. Their first choice goalkeeper failed an MRI test.
He was one of the players booted out of the tournament, so what happened to him? He went back to school – there was a law in place at the time encouraging education, so children were registered in schools. The young goalkeeper was one of those. He had progressed through school – there was nothing to gain by pretending to be younger then, as it meant a longer stay in school than was necessary.
He returned to class, but his football dreams were wrecked, and his team was a mess. The defence had not trained with any keeper but him. Tanzania went out badly in the first round. There was no investigation of what had happened. An MRI test outweighed years of schooling. Would a child, albeit almost an adult, understand what had happened to him and why? Did this curb age-cheating or punish an innocent child? The jury remains out.
However, some changes have been made. Previously, teams were expelled for any infraction – now it requires more failed tests, but while football craved a solution – understandable – the science does not unequivocally offer proof-positive of catching the age cheats.
The Science and MRI Scans
The test relied on to catch the cheats is claimed to be 99% accurate, but that is within a range. MRI scans detect whether wrist bones have fused. This is said to be the proof, but from its inception there was a huge problem – many actually. There were examples where twins took MRI tests – one passed and the other didn’t.
MRI testing says that fusion will occur between 16-18 years of age. That means that a 16 year-old could fail despite being under 17 and an 18-year-old could pass despite being overage. Fusion does not necessarily occur when the child turns 17, so should that be accepted as concrete proof of age-cheating?
The scans and interpretation of them also take no account of environmental effects which suggest that hotter temperatures result in faster development. That in turn could affect MRI scanning. Certain parts of Africa obviously have higher temperatures than other parts of the world. But none of these factors are considered by football. If the wrist bones have fused nothing else matters. You are deemed an age cheat no matter what other evidence suggests you are not. Is this any way to treat children dreaming of fame and fortune and more besides?