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Again, Spotlight On Nigerian U-17 Teams Over False Ages

Published by Guardian on Sun, 26 Feb 2012

Former Super Eagles striker, Humphrey Jebba, predicted recently that the nation's football might continue to witness the use of over-aged players in competitions meant for junior players unless those administering the game decide to stamp out the syndrome. Speaking with GOWON AKPODONOR at his Agbassa residence in Warri, the former Bendel United and BCC Lions of Gboko top striker fingered the need to impress their employers (the NFF) at all cost, as well as laziness as reasons Nigerian coaches resort to cheating in underage competitions. The nation is currently fighting for qualification tickets for the FIFA U-17 World Cup in both male and female categories, and already there are danger signals from the camps of the Golden Eagles and the Flamingoes following allegation of over aged players.Prior to the FIFA U-17 World Cup hosted by Nigeria in 2009, former Green Eagles winger, Adokiye Amiesimaka, raised an alarm that the Golden Eaglets captain, Fortune Chukwudi, was at least nine years older than the age he claimed to be. His revelation that Chukwudi played for his Sharks youth team as far back as 2002/2003 football season was greeted with mixed reactions, with officials of the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) and some others tagging him an enemy of progress.But as someone with the interest of the nation's football at heart, Amiesimaka stood his ground, insisting that as chairman of Sharks of Port Harcourt in the 2002/2003, he decided to float a feeder team of fresh school leavers not older than 20 years.Then, the feeder team concept was relatively new in the country and Amiesimaka wanted to make a success of the innovation, so he decided to double as the team's coach.Drawing Nigerians' attention on the danger of using Chukwudi in the 2009 cadet championship, Aimiesimaka disclosed: 'One of my key players then is the current captain of our so-called U-17 team. By his own admission at that time, that is seven years ago, he was 18 years old. If we are not utterly irresponsible, how can he be eligible for this tournament when he is not less than 25 years old now''Like many other allegations of cheating raised against Nigerian youth teams in the past, the point raised by Amiesimaka was swept under the carpet. The Golden Eagles made it to the final of the competition, where they lost to Switzerland.It is another year for FIFA U-17 World Cups and again, Nigeria's build up to the championship is shrouded in over-aged controversies.First, it was coaches of the country's U-17 female team, the Flamingoes that were accused of fielding over-aged players in the qualifier against Kenya. After the coach Peter Dedevbo-tutored Flamingoes led the country to win the first leg in Nairobi, coach of the Kenyan side cried blue murder, saying that his country lost to 'mamas' and not U-17 players.Instead of the NFF looking into the allegation raised by the Kenyan coach, with a view to ascertaining the authenticity of it, it labeled the coach a bad loser. A statement by Aisha Falode, General Coordinator of all the national female teams, said the man was a false alarmist.The protest lodged by the Kenyan officials at CAF secretariat is yet to be determined.In what many analysts saw as desperation, Falode defended the choice of the players by pointing out that the international passport is the soledeterminant of ages.Falode's explanation, notwithstanding, some analysts are worried that the ages on the passports may have be fixed for the players by their coaches in connivance with some NFF officials, who want the teams to win at all cost.The Guardian's investigation has revealed that the Flamingoes' camp in Abuja has professional players from the various league sides in the country.The team's top striker, Patience Okaemu, who scored Nigeria's two goals in the first leg of the game against Kenya at Nyayo National Stadium in Nairobi, played for Pelican Stars of Calabar for two seasons before crossing over to Delta Queens. Another player in the Flamingoes team, Halima Ayinde, featured for Nassarawa Amazons last season. Also in the team is Oluchi Offoegbu, who featured for Pelican Stars in the last football season.According to a source close to the team, one of the players in the Flamingoes team, Jennifer Ajuya, has allegedly been in the fold of Delta Queens since 2004. The source revealed that she started with the club's Feeders team. There is also Jiroro Idike, who, the source said, joined Delta Queens in 2010.At the completion of the team screening excise in Abuja late last year, Chairman of the NFF Technical Committee, Christopher Green, had read the riot act to the team, saying: 'The NFF wants to make this clear now that there is zero tolerance for age cheating. We no longer have any patience for players, who would come to the national team, falsify their ages to be able to play age-grade competition and fail to fulfill their potential years after.'I am telling you girls to come clean and tell us your true ages. We will investigate all those players who eventually pass this screening exercise and get to know their actual ages.'Anyone found to have deceived the Federation, even if she passed the screening, would be sent packing. We are not joking. The NFF would not tolerate cheating.'But after officials of the Kenyan U-17 team accused the Flamingoes of cheating, Green revealed that the football body made several verifications to confirm the players' ages.He said: 'We are not the parents of these players, but through the several verifications we made, we confirmed they are of the ages they claim. It's always a big challenge for coaches to select players of true ages when it comes to age-grade competitions, but we've done the best we can to get the right players for the competition.Peter Dedevbo, who is the coach of Delta Queens FC, was appointed coach of the Flamingoes last year and he is expected to lead the team to this year's FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup holding in Azerbaijan.Dedevbo, who was assistant coach of the Super Falcons at the 2007 FIFA Women's World Cup in China, also led the Flamingoes to Trinidad and Tobago two years ago, where the team lost in the quarterfinal.One of the outstanding campaigners against cheating at age group competitions, former Green Eagles captain, Segun Odegbami, has been calling on the authorities to redirect their attention to the development of schools sports and the grassroots.According to Odegbami, the schools are 'where we can get players who are young and hungry not only to do their nation proud, but also to make names for themselves in the game.'Odegbami, who won 46 caps and scored 23 goals for the then Green Eagles, said: 'There is no way we can get a true U-17 player outside our schools. How can we say a player playing in the national league is U-17' This cannot be unless we are deceiving ourselves. Parents and coaches also must be sincere in whatever they are doing not to encourage their wards to falsify their ages.'With the allegation of cheating raised against the female U-17 side yet to settle, the coach of the U-17 male team, (Golden Eaglets), Manu Garba, hit the spotlight during the week following the invitation of one Sanusi Sani from Gombe United to the team.Even as some Nigerians continue to question Sani's invitation, the coach is going about defending the boy's age, basing his argument on the player's physique.To some lovers of football in Nigeria, the syndrome called age cheating has done more harm than good to the nation's soccer.In 1985, Nigeria won the first ever FIFA U-16 World Cup in China and one of the players on parade for Nigeria was a certain Fatai Atere. He was said to be 14 years old at that time.Two years later, at 16, Atere played in the same World Cup at Canada '87 and three years after, he faded out of the game. Meaning that Atere was just 19 when he quit active football.In 1987, there was a '13-year-old' Peter Ogaba, who was part of Nigeria's U-17 team that picked silver in Canada 87 World Cup. He was the youngest player at that tournament. Two years later, at 15, he played in the U-17 World Cup again and the U-20 World Cup in Saudi Arabia. Three years after that, Ogaba was no longer playing active football. He was just 18.In 1987, Philip Osondu was named the Most Valuable Player (MVP) at the FIFA U-17 World Cup. At the time, he was 16 years old. Unknowing to many Nigerians then, Osondu had actually featured in the Super Eagles in 1983, but was dropped by Coach Adegboye Onigbinde after the first phase of camping before qualifiers for the 1984 Africa Cup of Nations and the World Cup began.However, Osondu, after a sparkling performance at the U-16 World Cup in 1987, was signed on by Anderlecht of Belgium and was supposed to be a player for the future. He managed to play in the U-20 World Cup in two years (1989) as an 18 year old, but two years later, he could no longer play football actively.With the system becoming 'more rampant' and gaining the support of the NFF, many watchers of the beautiful game are worried that despite the lip service paid to eradicating the scourge, there may not be an end to age cheating in the nation's football unless punitive measures are employed against culprits.According to Jebba, the best way out is to go back to genuine school sports.'We know that the average age to start secondary school in Nigeria is 10 and that means by the time you are in Senior Secondary School (SS1) you could be between the ages of 13-16. Any player above SS3 should not be invited to the U-17 team,'' he said.
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