Monday, November 23, 2009

Chukwudi, How old are you?


"Cast your years on the coaster that rolls behind you and after many football seasons they will overtake you" - Ogyakromian

One of the questions we are taught to answer very early in life is “How old are you?” Therefore when you see an adult struggling to answer this simple question then you know that “matter don come”.  This was the situation Fortune Chukwudi , the captain of the Nigerian under 17 team, found himself in when a journalist asked him, Chukwudi How old are you? A brief background will be helpful.

A few weeks to the commencement of the 2009 edition of FIFA’s under 17 world cup  competition,  Team Nigeria had been thrown into confusion when they were forced to drop fifteen players after MRI scans indicated they were over-aged . In a move reminiscent of what happened to team Ghana before Korea 2007 when Ghana dropped six players after FIFA promised scans to weed out age cheats, Nigeria preempted FIFA’s big stick by carrying out its own scans. This action notwithstanding, during the tournament itself,  Adokiye Amiesimaka, a nations cup winner with Nigeria in 1980 and lawyer decided to use his column in the Guardian to attack the age cheats when all eyes were on Nigeria.  According to Adokiye Amiesimaka, he once ran a football club somewhere in Nigeria and he recruited a footballer who claimed he was eighteen years in the year 2002. Today in 2009, this young man by name Fortune Chukwudi  is the captain of Nigeria’s under 17 team . Assuming he used his correct age in 2002, Chukwudi must be twenty-five now. How did he make it into the under-seventeen team that had been pruned by Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) . In the storm that followed his publication, Adokiye Amiesimaka the man who stood for truth was subjected to all kind of vilifications for being ‘too-known’. This is the bane of Africa’s under development.  But let’s leave that for another day.

After Nigeria deservedly lost the final match to Switzerland, a team that really looked under 17, the captain of the Nigerian team was asked a simple question by curious journalists - Chukwudi, How old are you? The young man’s answer was, “I have put all these issues behind me”.  Many people missed the revelation in Chukwudi’s answer. Remember when Christ was tempted by the devil three times? He told the devil after the third attempt, “get thee behind me Satan”.  The sermon is clear - when you face obstacles in your path to stardom, put the obstacle behind you. Like many more before him, Chukwudi had the opportunity to play for a national team, get a contract in Europe and bye-bye poverty. But one thing stood against him- Age. What did he do? He took the extra eight years or so that ensnared him and put them behind him, only then did he become 17.  If the journalist had asked “how many years are behind you?”  Maybe he would have told us.

Fortune Chukwudi is not the only player with a few years behind him.  I lost interest in FIFA’s aged competitions years ago when I came to the conclusion that the competition has been over-abused particularly by countries in Africa led by Ghana and Nigeria.   As far back as the eighties I wrote a letter, that wasn’t published, to the editor of Graphic Sports , a Ghanaian sports weekly on this subject . My letter said Ghana was cheating and I cited examples of some players. I have since decided not to celebrate any star from these tournaments; I’d rather wait and celebrate them when they become real stars at the senior level. For these players, excelling in these tournaments is a once in a life time opportunity to be seen by scouts of European teams. A contract in Europe translates many from the dominion of poverty to the glory of riches. The stakes are therefore very high for them; it doesn’t matter if they have to cheat to be in a squad. But for sports officials who condone and connive with these guys to put as many as eight to ten years behind them, I don’t know what motivates them. It is no secret that ages on passports and birth certificates in Africa are what we say they are, but we all know what a 16 year old looks like in our community and it is very easy to verify these ages if we want to. Most of these players would have played for various teams from the colt (real under 17) league to the premier division. The football associations have these records and can easily make a good guess of a player’s age from his history. Most of them were once enrolled in schools where age records are kept.  Getting such data on 98% of these footballers is a no brainer, therefore for an FA official to suggest that we go ask the parents of these footballers to confirm their ages , is to say the least , ridiculous.

 In my early teens, Yaw Preko was my favourite player in the colt league in Accra. He played for Kotobabi Power lines. At the time (Around ’84), some competing teams felt he was above the 16 year limit for the league.  In 1991, Yaw Preko played for the Ghana under-17 team for the second time at age 16. After giving a good account of themselves at their maiden world cup appearance, the senior national team of Ghana will be carrying the expectations of Ghanaians into another world cup in South Africa. Judging from their ages in 2006, the Black stars team is expected to peak around 2010. However, the high expectations of Ghanaians is being tempered by one difficult question- How many years do they have behind them?  Recurring injuries to any of our heroes is viewed with suspicion in Ghana- Could that be the sign that the years have overtaken him from behind?  The fitness of Laryea Kingston, John Mensah, and Stephen Appiah still gives me the shivers. I made a sign of the cross when Michael  Essien recovered from that knee injury in less than six months and came back firing on all cylinders. I don’t believe he is 26 years but he must be close to that (less than four years from the fact).  I still pray that Asamoah Gyan’s current form continues and the injuries that plagued his career last year remain behind him too. Is he 24?

When I realized that Julius Agahowa’s back flicks that characterized his goal celebrations have abandoned him at age 24, I knew the pace forward have finally been out paced by those years behind him.  Does anybody in Nigeria remember Nwanko Kanu’s  educational history? When measured against his football age of 33 what does it say? That Kanu  was 2 years old in what class? I hear his team mate David James, the England goal keeper, has challenged the assertion that at 37, he is the oldest player in the team. He reserves that honour for 33 year old Kanu. His former coach Harry Rednapp thinks Kanu is 47.

If the age cheating phenomenon was bringing benefits to Africa, few people will lose sleep over it. But apart from making a few players and their families rich, it has no other benefit. If winning under 17 trophies does not translate to winning the real world cup, of what benefit is it? However, if we feature true under-17s and true under-20s in these age competitions, the scouts will still find the talents from Africa. These true youths will benefit from the youth training system in the European clubs, they become better players, our chances of winning the senior world cup are brighter and guess what, they will earn lots of money for many years to come and lift the family yoke of poverty. Every age cheat just steals the opportunity of this true talent. Africa is the loser.

Chukwudi, whose place did you steal in the national under 17 team? Chukwudi, How many years did you cast behind you? Chukwudi , How old are you?

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