Soccer News of Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Source: Opoku, Christopher

Comment: Only a paradigm shift will stop age-cheating in Ghana football

By Christopher Opoku

This is probably one of the most controversial topics I will ever write on, but I have been prompted to do so because of recent events that have gone on in the camp of Ghana’s national Under 17 team, the Black Starlets.

18 players have been sent home after failing the Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scan tests to confirm that they fall within the age category. My sources tell me that 4 players are deemed to fall within the age category, but even they are under observation.

This means that all the carefully laid plans by Black Starlets head coach Paa Kwesi Fabin and assistant Isaac Boateng have been completely destroyed.

The Black Starlets have been camping regularly since December and a squad would have been selected from them to compete in the upcoming African Under 17 Nations Cup qualifiers.

As it is now, Fabin will have to select a new set of players all over again and with barely two months to the qualifiers, a major challenge exists.

At this stage, some might ask why over-aged players were selected to the Black Starlets in the first place. The reason I am hearing is that the Black Starlets handlers selected the players based on the date of births given on their respective registration cards.

Therein lies the problem. I will state emphatically here and now that age-cheating is part and parcel of Ghana football and it will take a massive paradigm shift in our mindsets to gradually eradicate it.

I am sorry that I might be seen to be washing our dirty linen in public, but the success of the Black Starlets in 1991 at the FIFA JVC Under 17 World Cup changed our mindset in terms of gradual football development.

From that time, we all expected victory at junior level, instead of grooming the right kind of talent to one day don the Black Stars Jersey.

I remember the pressure Isaac Paha came under when the Black Starlets lost to Nigeria in the 1993 final. Players like then skipper Sebastian Barnes came under fire for not playing as well as expected.

Again, after Sam Arday led the Starlets to reclaim the World crown in 1995, Emmanuel Afranie also came under pressure after Ghana lost 1-2 to Brazil in the 1997 final, despite the fact that Brazil not only came from behind to win 2-1, but were down to ten men for much of the second half.

Bluntly put, the pressure to win has resulted in over-aged players being selected for our junior teams all the time. Players who are genuinely under 17 years are not considered because they are seen to be too smallish or too young to win anything for the Black Starlets.

Players go to the extent of forging birth certificates and making new passports to show their new 'ages’.

The problem has seeped into our league competitions where, if you want to have a good laugh, just go through the registration cards of our players competing in the Glo Premier League and Division One League.

Some of the ages given by the players beggar belief. I am aware of a Premier league player (name withheld for obvious reasons) who failed to travel with the Local Black Stars for a national assignment once because he claimed he had lost his passport.

Apparently the real reason was that the player had been using his real age, but after the call up, he decided to get a new passport which would give his age as 19 years.

So the player, knowing that he would get another opportunity, gave that excuse and did not travel with the team. This player I am referring to eventually got his place in the team.

The knock on effect is that players in their ‘late twenties’ playing for the Black Stars look more like players entering their forties and almost ready to retire from active football. This is because, in a bid to represent Ghana at junior level, they reduce their ages.

I know a current Black Stars player who has reduced his age by at least ten years and there could be more.

Is it any surprise that Andre Ayew has been an influential player for the Black Stars over the last two years? This is because he is using his right age. The much maligned Kevin Prince Boateng had an excellent 2010 World Cup, also because he is using his right age. Basically we have got it all wrong in terms of getting the right things done.

It is time for all of us to undergo a paradigm shift in our mindset and say that we are not concerned about winning at junior level, but rather about developing players with the right ages so that one day, they can go on to enjoy long careers with the Black Stars.

Once the powers that be can get us all to such a mindset, we can then start doing the right things. To be perfectly honest, a proper Under 17 team should comprise of players still in school.

The school system should be a starting point for selecting such players, through schools soccer competitions. There should be proper monitoring of every potential player such that the right documentation regarding dates of birth is obtained.

There should be a systematic plan of action that will see players with the correct ages playing for the age teams and gradual grooming should be a major part of the plan.

The sad thing about it all is that age cheating is not only limited to football, but to almost all walks of life in Ghana.

Civil servants reduce their ages to prolong their working lives so that they officially reach the age of 60 years, when in fact they are years older.

So I guess the first reaction would be to say that the entire system is messed up, but that does not mean that it cannot be worked on.

In football it is even worse because reduction of ages is seen as a way to the ‘top’ and unless we all begin to come round to the idea that we are not interested in winning anything at youth level and we begin to select players with correct ages, we will be the subject of MRI tests for years to come because, like it or hate it, Ghana is now under suspicion from FIFA for alleged age-cheating.

Indeed I wonder whether to even use the word ‘alleged’, but whilst others will ask for rock-solid evidence, clearly 90% of players in Ghana have falsified their ages, and that is the worst kept secret in Ghana football. It may look impossible, but we need to act and act now!.