Cameroonian football is in the midst of scandal, as 32 players called up to an under-17s tournament have failed “age tests”, suggesting they are older than they claim to be.
As a result, the players have been disqualified from a Central African Football Federations’ Union competition in the seaside city of Limbe, Cameroon.
After 21 of the initial squad of 30 were disqualified, 11 further players failed age tests, meaning the federation faces a race against time to find enough eligible players before the event gets under way this Thursday, January 12.
The mini-tournament also involving Republic of the Congo, Chad, Democratic Republic of the Congo and Central African Republic will see the top two qualify for a continent-wide youth competition to be played in Algeria in April.
The issue of “age fraud” is a serious one in world football, with players from poorer countries with patchy systems of record-keeping often incentivised to be dishonest about how old they are in a world where youth is a precious commodity and players may be ruthlessly discarded once they are seen as “too old”.
The president of the Cameroonian Football Federation (Fecafoot) is Samuel Eto’o, a four-time African footballer of the year and three-time Champions League winner. Eto’o, 41, is desperate to professionalise the footballing culture of a country that beat Brazil at the recent World Cup but has only got past the group stage of the sport’s biggest global competition once — in 1990.
Though everybody agrees age fraud is a genuine problem in Cameroon and elsewhere, multiple conversations with local experts highlight the complexity of the issue — from perpetuating racial stereotypes to the dangers of false accusations of age fraud ruining the careers of innocent young footballers.
There is also serious doubt over the efficacy of the medical resonance imaging (MRI) tests which are used in age tests.
“The Cameroonian Football Federation informs public opinion that as part of the preparations for the UNIFFAC Limbe 2023 tournament qualifying for the next African U17 Nations Championship, 21 players out of the 30 currently in training have failed at the outcome of the MRI tests,” a spokesperson for the federation said in a dramatic statement on December 29. “They were immediately removed from the group. Steps were immediately taken for their replacement.”
Fecafoot went on to explain how action was taken under Eto’o’s “strict instructions” in order to “put an end to the tampering with civil status records”, an issue which has previously “tarnished” the image of Cameroonian football and affects countries around the world.
Bambe Wanneh Giovanni is a Cameroonian football journalist who has spoken to The Athletic.
“We’ve had so many cases of age fraud,” he says, acknowledging that while this happens around the world it does appear to be a particular problem in Cameroon and other African countries.
“A player gets scouted when they are 17 or 18 — the ages clubs really want to get talents to build them up,” he says. “When they get past that level of 17 or 18, they wouldn’t get a chance to play in Europe.”
While professional football is a lucrative career for anyone, the potentially transformative nature of a pro contract is magnified in Cameroon, where almost 40 per cent of the population lives in poverty according to the World Bank, with the figure far higher than that in its rural areas.
Opportunities are growing, too — while a couple of decades ago, African footballers who went abroad almost exclusively joined clubs in western Europe, there are now other possible destinations.
Of Cameroon’s 26-strong squad at the recent World Cup in Qatar, just two played for clubs in their native country. Many of the others did still play in traditional western European leagues, three were with sides in Saudi Arabia (including captain Vincent Aboubakar) and there were others based in Russia, Turkey, the United States and China.
The increasing globalisation of football means there are more and more chances for young Cameroonian footballers to build a career in the game and make life-changing amounts of money for themselves and their families.
These economic incentives — combined by a less rigorous system of record-keeping, especially in rural districts — drive some Cameroonian footballers to commit age fraud.
This generally works by players adopting an entirely new identity, usually making a subtle tweak to their name and, of course, changing their date of birth. This is the “tampering with civil status records” outlined in the federation’s statement.
“It’s not because of malicious intent but because players want to have a longer career,” explains Wanneh Giovanni. “They want to get more money for themselves or their families.”
Daniel Ekonde is a journalist for Cameroon Radio Television.
“Players know they can easily transform their lives through the sport,” he tells The Athletic. “People try as much as possible, even doing the wrong things.”
Ekonde suggests it is unfair to place all the blame and sanctions on very young players who, in many cases, can be seen as fraud victims themselves: “An agent may want their player to feature in a particular tournament… the football business is lucrative.”
He expressed “surprise” that the scandal has happened at a time when the federation has been trying to professionalise.
“Cameroon has a national football academy, which was created five or six years ago,” he explains. “They take players from the age of seven to 14, they go through the youth system.”
While everyone in African football agrees age fraud is a very real issue which should be combatted to ensure the integrity and safety of youth competitions, there are serious concerns about the methods used to root it out — as well as about how Eto’o and Fecafoot have acted in recent days.
An MRI scan of the player’s wrist has become standard practice for the purposes of determining age in sporting competition. The bones in that part of the body become completely fused after the age of 17 and are only partially fused before. This distinction can be picked up with a high degree of accuracy by a scan.
This means the method of testing is not useful for determining age in older groups, such as for under-21 or under-23 teams.
The method was first used by FIFA, the world game’s governing body, in 2009 and there have been repeated examples since of players being disqualified from tournaments — though rarely has this been on the scale we have seen with Cameroon in recent days.
Advocates claim the testing is 99 per cent accurate but others are sceptical, noting that the cut-off point (age 17) is too rigid — as the full fusing does not simply happen exactly on somebody’s birthday but is a gradual process taking place around that age — and that some people, especially aspiring professional athletes, grow far more quickly than others.
“So many factors can cause (someone who is actually) under-age to be above the FIFA recommended MRI limit of grade five,” Cameroonian journalist Angu Lesley tells The Athletic. “It’s not a fixed rule. There are so many exceptions.”
He says one player had been graded two (out of five) on the test and was playing in under-17 tournaments before having to stop “because of the age on his passport”.
“MRI is not an exact indicator of age cheating,” he says. “The efficiency of MRI is not 100 per cent.”
“We have seen lads who are way bigger than their ages in other European countries,” says Wanneh Giovanni. “(Manchester City’s 6ft 4in — 194cm — 22-year-old striker) Erling Haaland, for example — some people do just grow differently.”
However, even he acknowledges that the MRI method is “the only workable option at the moment” — when it is used sensitively in conjunction with other sources of evidence.
African football specialist Gary Al-Smith explains that the issue of age fraud is a tricky one in a part of the footballing world used to being stereotyped and belittled.
“It is sensitive and a huge topic everywhere,” he tells The Athletic, adding that jokey “football Twitter” accounts, used to making close-to-the-bone jokes, obsess over the topic of age fraud in a way that perpetuates racially-charged stereotypes.
“It’s a slight on the whole country and the whole continent,” Al-Smith says, adding that even though he is Ghanaian rather than Cameroonian, he has recently received offensive comments on the subject.
In 2005, David Moyes, who was the Everton manager at the time, was rebuked for saying of their striker Yakubu: “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.”
Eto’o, who is of course a former Cameroon international, spent most of his playing career at the very summit of the European game and is said to be passionate about fighting back against negative stereotypes about African football, which can be supercharged in the age of social media.
In October, French media outlet RFI reported Cameroon had employed a witch doctor in preparation for the World Cup starting the following month. The article enraged Eto’o, who said it was completely false and perpetuated offensive stereotypes.
— Fecafoot-Officiel (@FecafootOfficie) October 8, 2022
However, there has been criticism of Eto’o’s public and drastic way of dealing with the failed tests.
This has divided Cameroonian football, says Al-Smith, with many thinking the issue could have been “more diplomatically handled”.
“The country is heavily split, because there are those who think Samuel Eto’o and the FA did the right thing,” he says.
However, in previous instances, the federation simply published a list of those who passed the test, protecting those who failed from public humiliation.
Al-Smith adds: “If you don’t publish the names of those who failed… you don’t tarnish their image for life.”
(Samuel Eto’o at the World Cup. Photo: Stephen McCarthy – FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)
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