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Lets join hands to eradicate age cheating

I was in Port Harcourt a few weeks ago at the invitation of the River States Sports Commissioner to attend the annual Governors Cup. I eavesdropped on a conversation between our cameraman Thandazani Zimbwa and a ball boy who informed him he dreams of becoming the next Jay Jay Okocha of Nigeria.

Zimbwa asked the boy his age. And without batting an eyelid, the boy answered that he was 11 years old. Something about the boy made me take a closer look at him and I sincerely marvelled at his physique and well toned body; I inwardly envied Nigerians in general and I felt that there was no way that we South Africans could match Nigerians in terms of natural build.

But then another boy who was sitting close to us admonished the ball boy and chided him for lying, revealing that the boy was in actual fact 21 years old and not 11 as he informed us. Then I got the shock of my life. The ball boy did not deny that he was 21 years old.

Instead, he replied: “Ahh Oga,” addressing me. “I am better because I only chopped off (reduced) 10 years from my age. I know of a lot of other boys in my area who have literally chopped off 15 years from their ages!” I looked at him with a mixture of amusement and pity.

I have said this before, but this is no longer a laughing matter. CAF has tried to introduce the Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) which is said to accurately determine the age of a child through checking his bones in an attempt to curb age cheating at U17 level. But they are going about it so haphazardly and with so little enthusiasm that it is not working.

At the risk of being called a sore loser, I watched the Ghana U17 team beat the South African U17 team last week and swear that those Black Starlets cannot be 16-year-olds. I have also seen the Nigeria U20 team eliminate South Africa from the African Youth Championship and there is no way those Nigerian boys could have been 19-year-olds!

I hear the Nigerians have also lodged a protest with CAF on the grounds that the Malians fielded over-age players in their U17 African Junior Championship match last week. I have further received unbelievable yet reliable information that Benin eliminated Cameroon from the U20 tournament, handing them a 4-0 beating with a squad made up of veterans whose ages could range between 24 and 28-years!

My country is not immune to this malady and I recall two years ago, my 16-year-old son and his TUKS teammates complaining bitterly to me to do something (because they know I am a journalist) and expose the Orlando Pirates U15 team which had just eliminated them from the Nike Manchester United competition in Soweto.

I gently reminded them to be sportsmen and accept defeat in the true spirit of the game. But my son was adamant that this was all disgusting and he contemplated quitting football and perhaps like Brian Mathe’s son who is his colleague, also concentrate on cricket. I informed him it was his call and I will support whatever decision he took.

But that was before I enquired from him what made him and his teammates conclude that Pirates fielded over-age players. I asked him if they would have complained had they won. “Dad,” he replied, “this is not the first time Pirates are doing this. It has been going on for years. Ask any development coach.

“Even in the Metropolitan Cup, they fielded boys that are well beyond the required ages. I mean, when you get tackled by a boy in your age category, or even shoulder charged for that matter, you can feel that the challenge is fair.

“But when an older boy hammers you, you feel like crying, because its like you have been hit by a steam train. Look at the Pirates players dad! Look at their thighs and No 1 number 14 in particular, just look at his neck and the size of his thighs and tell me if he is 15 years old!”

I informed him that some boys are physically stronger than others. He would have none of it. But now Orlando Pirates chairman Dr Irvin Khoza has taken a brave and commendable step by shutting down the Academy Youth Development after receiving information that there could be widespread age cheating by boys in his academy.

He has instituted an investigation and informed parents of the kids to fetch their children and place them at schools nearer their homes. It is actions like the ones taken by Khoza and Kaizer Motaung of Kaizer Chiefs that might help eradicate this sickening disease.

We need to be vigilant and punish particularly school teachers and parents who collude in this cheating practice. Perhaps the Minister of Sport Fikile Mbalula needs to consider putting into place measures that will seriously discourage pupils, teachers and parents from falsifying the ages of our youth.

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