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African players should celebrate age

An Englishman, Sir Alf Ramsey, remains the only alleged example of “age cheating” in Europe. That tells a tale about the continent’s structural setting.

Sir Alf, as claimed in Winning Isn't Everything, a biography by author Dave Bowler, is said to have forged documents so that his date of birth changed from 1920 to 1922.

A Google entry, however, returns the original 1920 birth date for the former footballer and 1966 World Cup-winning manager with England.

Bowler alleges that Sir Alf feared he would be considered too old (at 25) to be offered a professional contract at the end of the Second World War (1939 to 1945).

Bread was at stake. The same could be argued of former Derby County, Plymouth and Inter Milan defender Taribo West, in the wake of strong allegations that the Nigerian legend lied about his age.

“He (West) joined us in 2002 (the same year he represented Nigeria at the World Cup) saying he was 28,” claimed Partizan Belgrade ex-president Zarko Zecevic in the media recently.

“We only later found out he was 40 but he was still playing well so I don’t regret having him on the team.”

West (his current age is 39 according to Google) questioned the credibility of the ex-Partizan president’s claims.

Fair enough but let’s, for a moment, assume these allegations on both Sir Alf and West have an ounce of truth.

That Sir Alf’s claim is a drop in the ocean in Europe vindicates the general healthy structural setting on the continent, where every citizen born there has their true age recorded from onset.

It, therefore, becomes difficult for a one Wayne Mark Rooney, born on 25 October 1985 in Croxteth, Liverpool, to lie about his age.

Especially with the world witnessing his cracking goal for Everton against Arsenal’s David Seaman as a 16-year-old boy and keeping track of his steady progress at Manchester United.

In some parts of Asia (age cheating made popular by citizenship changes) and South America (where many South Americans used the Spanish Civil War to their advantage), that structural setting is lacking.

If it is lacking in some parts of Asia and South America, it is close to non-existent in most of Africa.

Because there are no well-established structures to track players from when they are eight-year-olds, age-cheating is more rampant in Africa.

Such failures have caused countries to be banned for fielding overage players in Fifa competitions. Cases in point are Nigeria (1988 Olympics) and Uganda (2010 when the country was disqualified from the Africa Under-17 Championship qualifiers).

These structural letdowns have created a scenario where, by the time an average African player is firing, he/she is 26 but, because they have come to the fore late, they are declared to be 17-year-olds.

That also causes older players to peak late, fine-tune their age and alter names to favour future moves to Europe. No European club will take on a raw ‘25-year-old’ from Africa at the expense of a 20-year-old promising starlet.

A colleague who grew up with Taribo West in Nigeria argues that, while the former Super Eagles skipper could have shelved a couple of years, he was nowhere near the alleged 40 years as claimed by the ex-Partizan boss.

That cycle of a ‘couple of years shelved’ has blocked the path of genuine young African players in underage competitions. It has denied some African legends bragging rights when it comes to records for longevity in the game. Only Cameroon’s Roger Milla holds a record of such magnitude.

An African player’s longevity in the game should, therefore, be celebrated, not ridiculed. Let’s take examples in the English Premier League.

Teddy Sheringham, the former United and Spurs player, was 40 years and 268 days old when he started for West Ham against Manchester City in December 2006.

Sheringham had already become the oldest player in an FA Cup Final and the oldest Premier League scorer before that, a feat for celebration not ridicule.

Gordon Strachan also celebrates remaining the league’s second-oldest outfield player, having turned out for Coventry City some months after his 40th birthday in May 1997.

United’s evergreen star Ryan Giggs, whose contract at Old Trafford runs until June 2014, will join the 40s club in November this year.

Proper structures in Africa would have African aging players looking to emulate Giggs and Roger Milla.

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