Football Age, Real Age, and the Meanings of Age in Africa

Nigeria's U-17s

A gnawing and suspicious paradox lies at the heart of African national team experiences in world competition: African teams tend to do much better at the youth level than they do at the senior level.  Take the fact, for example, that African teams have won 5 of the 12 FIFA U17 World Cups (with the 2009 version scheduled to be hosted by Nigeria in October and November), but not a single African team has ever made it as far as the semi-finals of a full World Cup.  There are many possible explanations for this seeming paradox, including the unfortunately reality that player development in many African nations is hindered by weak national leagues and the poaching of players by wealthy European clubs.  Among the most common explanations, however, is simple: cheating.

The claim is that many African youth players are not really youth players at all because African nations freely send overage players to age-group competitions and are rewarded by the benefits of additional physical maturity and experience.  This claim is so pervasive that Nigerian blogger George Onmonya calls the use of a false age in African soccer “overage syndrome,” claiming (along with other African bloggers) that it is widely accepted among African players to have two ages: a “football age” and a “real age.”   Onmonya writes it is not uncommon in Nigeria for players to have as many as ten years difference between their football age and their real age: “A friend of mine who once played in the Nigerian league with Jigawa Stars told me his real age was thirty four two years ago but his football age was twenty one. He is still actively playing. He should be thirty six now and his football age twenty three.”

As such, Nigeria’s decision this summer “to eliminate age cheats” by using MRI scanning to test the age of their under-17 players was celebrated by a Reuters blogger as “the first step in ridding African soccer of a long-standing blight.” While it may be fair to describe speculation about the age of African soccer players as “blight,” the story of age in Africa is more interesting than a simple matter of cheating.  Though it may well be the case that “football age” is not the same as “real age,” both types of age are actually problematic in the soccer world.  While one might assume that science such as MRI scans could eliminate those problems, such an assumption fails when considering carefully the complicated meanings of age.

Football Age

The idea that African players and administrators manipulate age, valid or not, is a nearly constant presence in African soccer.  This summer, for example, a Zimbabwean news source announced that the reason their under 17 team had been selected for the 2010 youth Olympics in Singapore was because “Zimbabwe made history as the only country which was represented by players with the correct age group at the African Junior Championships held in March this year.” Though that particular claim may be an exaggeration (despite much speculation, Niger seems to have been the only team officially disqualified from the 2009 African under 17 championships), there is no question that many successful African youth teams have been accused of cheating by using over-age players.

Sanna Nyassi

Sanna Nyassi

Recent Gambian success in youth internationals (a phenomenon that has helped stock MLS with Gambian players such as the Nyassi brothers, Amadou Sanyang, Emmanuel Gomez, and Abdoulie Mansally), for example, has led to much speculation about the age of their players. The thinking boils down to the admittedly perplexing question of how The Gambia, a desperately poor country of 1.7 million people with a senior team currently ranked 99th in the world (having never qualified for the World Cup), could be the African under 17 champion in both 2005 and 2009?

Even beyond the circumstantial evidence, in my own experiences with African soccer age claims proved dubious at best.  When my Malawian team would travel to week-end road games a favorite pastime involved evaluating the age claims made by the national newspaper’s weekly player profile.  Each week the sports section interviewed one of the Super League’s star players, and each week that player’s listed “age” provoked laughter and incredulity amongst my Malawian teammates: “Ok, this guy claims he’s 20 years old—but I watched him play for the national team when I was in primary school.  So that would mean he started making national team appearances at 12!?!?  Not possible.”  But everyone understood what they were doing.  For Malawian players youth meant opportunity—the ultimate dream of getting picked up by a European club, or if not that, maybe a contract for real money with  South African club or at the least an extended life span in the Malawian national player pool.

In responding to a similar problem in South African soccer, University of Johannesburg sport sociologist Cora Burnett argues that the fundamental issue here is poverty: “Given the [nature] of poverty in a society where dishonesty often pays — high criminality, dubious ethical standards and ‘contaminated’ values — and a sports fraternity with pressures to succeed, overage participation needs to be unpacked.”  Though I agree poverty may play some role, this assessment to me sounds unnecessarily harsh.  While it is hard to argue that creating a football age is not a significant issue in African soccer, I would suggest that “unpacking” the issue also requires some critical inquiry about the meaning of “real” age.

“Real” Age

Establishing a “real” age for purposes of age grading youth sports is necessary as part of efforts to promote reasonable competition, but in many ways it is as problematic as creating a football age.  The first problem should be familiar to anyone who has ever been involved with youth soccer, or anyone who has been to a junior high school dance: kids mature at different rates.  Remember the dance in seventh grade where a fully mature 5’8” girl was dancing with your squeaky voiced 4’10” guy friend, while the early maturing tough guy in the class was biding his time in the corner stroking his goatee?  They were all the same chronological age, but very different biologically and, partially as a consequence, often very different socially.

Freddy Adu

Freddy Adu

Likewise, regardless of various speculations about Freddy Adu’s “real” age there is no question that when he joined DC United he was more physically mature than most 14 year olds.  That may well have been a simple matter of random biological chance, but it doesn’t change the fact that it is now clear he was well past his growth spurt.  It’s not Freddy’s fault, but it does raise perennial questions about whether it is prudent to invest millions in very young athletes who may well have peaked when other young athletes at the same “real” age have years of growth to come.  And when you go to Africa the questions start to get even more complicated.

One of the historical challenges of documenting age in Africa is that in many communities across the continent exact chronological age is not all that important.  This is not just a problem for soccer tournaments, but also for demographers and those interested in population trends.  According to one scholarly analysis by David Cleveland “Africa is probably the most difficult region of the world for which to obtain good estimates of numerical age” for a variety of reasons, including the fact that it is often more functional to sort people by biological and social maturity rather than by the exact date of their birth.

Though this is changing some with the expansion of Western health care systems and their dependence on chronological age, historically many African societies thought of people in “age sets” defined by their abilities, capacities, and social roles rather than by their exact birth date.  An 18 year old who is married with children would be treated as of a different age than an 18 year old finishing school and playing soccer.  In other words, the fact that Freddy Adu identified as a full professional at 14 would have more significance than the fact that he was born in 1989.  Cleveland notes “in terms of reflecting biological and social reality they may, in fact, be more meaningful than Westerner’s numerical ages.”

The fact that many African societies are more interested in biological and social reality than chronological reality is compounded by the fact that many African children are born without official birth certificates.  Again, this is changing with the spread of modern health care systems and literacy (most urban, and even many rural, Africans today would be born with some documentation), but the fact that not having a birth certificate is relatively common does create some space for negotiation.  I know when I was in Malawi the rumors were that the European coach running one of the national youth teams (working through the German national aid agency, which had a whole program devoted to sending soccer coaches to developing nations—a story for another day) was sending the players he wanted to take for a summer European tournament to the passport agency with ages he assigned them for his own convenience.

This trick is also much rumored across Africa, a rumor encouraged by claims of corruption in some of the African bureaucracies assigned to issue official papers.  George Onmonya, the Nigerian blogger, explains that “You can walk into any immigration office in Nigeria today, forge documents at the nearby business centre, change your name, place of birth, date of birth, pay seven to ten thousand naira instead of the official price of about five thousand five hundred naira for international passport and within hours you have completed the whole process.”  The bottom line in all this is that although numerical age might initially seem to be a straightforward matter, for reasons both natural and nefarious “real” age is a questionable concept.

Is Science the Answer?

Based on my questions about the nature of “real” age, it should come as no surprise that I am skeptical of claims that science such as MRI bone scanning is “the first step in ridding African soccer of a long-standing blight.”  In fact, with a little research it becomes clear that MRI bone scanning also raises as many questions as it answers.


The basics of the bone scanning technique proposed for use on Nigerian U17 players involves creating a Magnetic Resonance Image (MRI) of player wrists to be evaluated by radiologists who would ostensibly determine “skeletal age.”  One problem here is that “skeletal age” is really just a measure of biological maturity, and people mature at different rates (think again about that junior high dance).  Another problem is that the scanning techniques require approximate interpretations that are inevitably imprecise.

One group of scientists from the University of Cape Town in South Africa, for example, specifically investigated the applications of the tests to sport and found that when nine radiologists evaluated the wrist scans of males between 14 and 18 years of age (chronologically) they could not accurately establish age: “In 1 subject the difference between the chronological age was underestimated by 2.4 years.  Clearly the method lacks the level of precision required for the purpose of screening players at age-group tournaments where a player 1 day older than the defined age is regarded as ‘too old’ for the competition.”  In fact, while the Nigerian source claims that the tests are accurate 90% of the time, other sources say the scanning has an error margin of plus or minus one year—which would make them functionally useless for FIFA competitions.

The South African scientists also note that the standardized measures used for the most common wrist scanning technique are based on samples of white English children and may not be directly comparable for children of other ethnicities.  In less scientific terms, the point is that such tests quickly trigger delicate questions about race, ethnicity, and bias.  As one Ghanaian-American commentator noted in 2005:

The intention of FIFA to using such imperfect technology points to the fact that nineteenth-century, Western scientific-thinking may still be right here with the rest of us in the twenty-first century. And this pretty much, unfortunately, reminds those of us avid students of Western scientific history of the racist science of Craniometry, or Craniology, which invidiously sought to “objectively” establish the relative intellectual inferiority of the non-white or non-European species of humanity – particularly continental Africans and their direct descendants around the globe – vis-à-vis the purported super-intellectual Aryan species of Western Europe and the European diaspora.

It is also quite striking to observe that the threatened use of MRI technology comes at a time that non-European nations appear to dominate the championship echelons of the Under-17 World Cup soccer tournaments. And so it may not be entirely gratuitous to factor in the question of race as a significant motivating element in FIFA’s intention of using MRIs to ascertaining the exact biological ages of players.

My own humble opinion is that this is less an issue of race than of the convenient delusion that age is a simple matter of science and birthdays.  I understand that youth international tournaments need to establish cut-off points and try to enforce them, but it is also important to recognize that those cut-offs are really just arbitrary markers based on our own cultural ways of thinking about age.  As such, while acknowledging that using “over-age” players can be problematic for player development within a country, it is also worth thinking carefully about whether African youth teams that “cheat” by using players of uncertain chronological ages are really doing anything worse than making up for having to play by someone else’s definition of “real” age.

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