Friday, April 29, 2011

Nigeria's age problem

"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," Everton manager David Moyes about his striker Yakubu Ayegbeni, 21st February 2008.

For those of you who don’t know much about Nigeria and its football, this quote might sound a bit odd to you. Allow me to give you a short background about Nigeria’s “Super Eagles” and African footballers in general. Nigerians, like most African footballers, had always been considered by Europeans as physically strong players that are technically gifted but tactically inept. That was the common perception about African nations and their footballers around the world up until the 1990 World Cup when Cameroon finally made an impression on the biggest stage of them all which led to major European clubs standing up and taking notice of these stars.

Enter the nineties and European clubs began recruiting players from African nations (mostly from West African nations that were colonized by the French or English) as they had finally found players that they could get cheaply, that could be offered a minor amount of cash to lure them, that they could provide with a work permit and of course, most importantly, a way out of Africa thanks to their talent.

This became the dream for many potential African footballers and it still is. In Nigeria however, some players seemed to have the door to their dream closing on them for one particular reason: their age. So they took that matter into their own hands. Bearing in mind that most, if not all, of these players have come from extremely poor backgrounds and are brought up in a country which has one of the lowest rates of social, health and educational care for its locals, you wouldn’t blame these individuals for not knowing their true birth dates, birth places or even having their own birth certificates. They’ve struggled in poverty and were lucky enough to be blessed by their footballing talent, with some luck and smart maneuvering along the way, to get them into Europe. So what happens when a European scout finds a talented Nigerian footballer, who has no papers, on the streets or at some local club? Well the player, regardless of his age, creates a new identity which would match the demands that could get him into Europe.

You might think that this sounds too unrealistic to be true, but I’ve heard of a story like this from someone linked directly to a famous Nigerian professional footballer. In the summer of 2001, I played football against Obafemi Martins’ younger brother while I was still living in Nigeria and he told me that his brother was 6 years older than the age that was written on his birth certificate which was presented to Italian football Club Reggiana before they signed him. Several Nigerian footballers, apparently, falsify their age throughout their careers to allow themselves to reach the heights of European clubs. How does this happen? Simple. In Nigeria you can simply go to the immigration office, pay a minor sum above the normal require sum to obtain a passport, and in a short while you’ll have it all at your disposal – a new name, a new age and new birthday. Congratulations, you now have a footballer’s identity.

Just imagine it, a footballer whose physique and mental awareness are those of a 25 year old, but who is considered to be 18 years old by all governing footballing bodies! It’s a scary thought to think of, but it’s a true one nonetheless. Very rarely have we found African players still performing to their normal standards in their early thirties. Their game seems to "fade" quicker than Europeans. Rumors about age falsification by Nigerian players such as Nwankwo Kanu, Taribo West and Jay-Jay Okocha had become rife during the final stages of their careers as there were physical signs that were apparently proving that the players were much older than they claimed to be. Their managers began doubting their ages publicly and that was the most troubling part of it. Age catches up with all footballers and sooner or later, they will be found out. But one thing is for sure, if someday Nigerian players feel that they can’t cope with the pressure and stress of being a top flight professional footballer in Europe, they have another escape; they can always go back to the immigration office in Nigeria and create an even better certificate – a death certificate. Yes, you can pay for one of those too.

1 comment:

  1. There will be a few times in your life when all your instincts will tell you to do something, something that defies logic, upsets your plans, and may seem crazy to others. When that happens, you do it. Listen to your instincts and ignore everything else. Ignore logic, ignore the odds, ignore the complications, and just go for it.