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Cameroon just latest age cheats foiled by FIFA MRI scans

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Cameroon just latest age cheats foiled by FIFA MRI scans

It was a hugely embarrassing episode for the proud nation of Cameroon and their ‘Indomitable Lions’ football teams.

Their Under-17 side was preparing to play Central African qualifying games in this month’s Nations Cup when it was found that 21 of the 30-strong squad had failed the age tests.

The new players were quickly picked up by coach Jean Pierre Fiala but, to further embarrassment, it was discovered that 11 of the additions were overage.

Samuel Eto'o orders Cameroon to disqualify 21 Under-17 players over age fraud concerns

Cameroon football president Samuel Eto’o was shocked by the news that 32 players in his country’s Under-17 squad have now failed age tests ahead of their matches this month

This proved to be an embarrassing episode for Fecafoot of Cameroon's football federation

This proved to be an embarrassing episode for Fecafoot of Cameroon’s football federation

Fiala has been left scrambling for enough players to field a team as Cameroon prepares for matches against Congo, Chad, DR Congo and the Central African Republic in just a few days.

All this reflected badly on Cameroon and made international headlines but the crusade to stamp out the practice of age falsification in player registrations – led by national hero Samuel Eto’o – is a sincere- heart and noble.

These are far from the first age cheats in football. There have been many opportunities across Africa, Asia and the Americas, especially in youth football where older and therefore often bigger and stronger players are making a difference.

It feels like the net is closing in on fraudsters, though, thanks to medical technology.

In 2009, FIFA introduced Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) testing at the Under-17 World Cup to determine whether players are over-age or not.

In his role at Fecafoot, Eto’o is desperately trying to eradicate the problem of age fraud

The age of football is fooling the timeline

1988 – Mexico were banned from the 1990 World Cup after their Under-20 team deliberately fielded some over-age players.

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1989 – Nigeria’s youth sides are banned by FIFA for two years for fielding over-age players. The birth dates of three players in the 1988 Olympics were different from those used by players in previous tournaments.

2003 – Kenya’s Under-17 team is disbanded by the national government after some players reveal they are over 18.

2008 – The Asian Football Confederation kicks North Korea, Tajikistan and Iraq after they qualify for the Under-16 Championship for fielding overage players. Yemen was kicked out of the tournament itself for the same offence.

2009 – MRI scans are introduced by FIFA at the Under-17 World Cup in Nigeria. 15 players in the host squad had to be dropped.

2010 – Senegal’s football federation dropped Diawandou Diagne, Herve Diedhiou and Samba Diallo from their Under-17 team after MRI scans revealed they were overage.

2010 – Eight players were banned from the Asian Under-16 Championship.

2017 – Cameroon barred 14 players from going to the Under-17 AFCON in Gabon after failing age tests.

2019 – African federation CAF has learned that Guinea overdid the ages of two players, Aboubacar Conte and Ahmed Tidiane Keita at the 2019 Africa Under-17 Cup of Nations. Guinea have been kicked out of the 2019 FIFA Under-17 World Cup.

MRI scans of players’ wrists look at how fused the bone structure is and the tests are considered 99 percent accurate up to age 17.

Former FIFA chief medical officer Jiri Dvorak co-authored a paper on the subject in 2006.

Nigeria hosted that 2009 World Cup and tried to fight the MRI tests. With good reason as it turned out that 15 players in their squad were overage and had to be dropped.

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Despite the roll-out of such scans ahead of continental and global youth tournaments, relatively few countries have caught up.

In December 2010, Senegal had to withdraw three players from their under-17 team after they failed the age tests.

Guinea lost their place at the 2019 Under-17 World Cup after it was found that the ages of two players at the Africa Under-17 Cup of Nations had been falsified.

Age or identity fraud continues to be a major source of concern for African football as a whole

Age or identity fraud continues to be a major source of concern for African football as a whole

In Asia, where age determination techniques were introduced as early as 2000, age cheating was found to be widespread.

North Korea, Tajikistan and Iraq were kicked out of the 2008 AFC Under-16 Championship after they and five other countries were found to have fielded overage players in qualifying. Yemen was expelled from the actual tournament for the same crime.

But it is the latest in a long line of age-cheating incidents in football.

Mexico were famously disqualified from the 1990 World Cup due to the Cachirules scandal where their under-20 team deliberately fielded at least four over-age players.

Nigeria’s youth sides were banned by FIFA in 1989 after they amended the birth dates of various players at the 1988 Olympic Games from certificates found for the same players at earlier tournaments.

'Peter Pan' Cameroon international Tobie Mimboe has famously become younger with each passing competition

‘Peter Pan’ Cameroon international Tobie Mimboe has famously become younger with each passing competition

Nor is it the first time Cameroon has been caught up in all this. There is the amusing case of Tobie Mimboe, nicknamed ‘Peter Pan’, who gets younger and younger with each passing tournament.

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And in 2017, the Cameroon federation, Fecafoot, barred 14 players from going to the Under-17 AFCON in Gabon after they failed exams.

When Eto’o, the former Barcelona, ‚Äč‚ÄčInter Milan and Chelsea striker who played 118 times for his country, became Fecafoot president in December 2021, he promised to take decisive action to stop the illegal practice.

The statements that followed this latest embarrassment made it clear that the MRI tests were carried out on Eto’o’s ‘strict instructions’ to end the tampering with civil status records which, in the past, have tarnished the image of the apex body of Cameroon football.’

So this short-term pain for Cameroon should lead to long-term gains as they clean up their act and set an example to other countries.

That all begs the question – why cheat in the first place?

A simple reason is just that – cheating to win football matches and tournaments, an appetite to gain the prestige that comes from success.

Another theory that has been advanced is the level playing field for African footballers who want to reach the top of the game.

The episode is embarrassing for Cameroon as a country and for their football teams

The episode is embarrassing for Cameroon as a country and for their football teams

Scouts from all the top European clubs scour Africa for talented players and an offer to move there is transformative for someone who may have grown up in poverty without access to proper football equipment or coaching.

It should also be considered that in some countries, birth records are not kept so a player would have a hard time proving their real age even if they wanted to.

But the advent of near-flawless technology to determine player ages should eradicate the practice – if Cameroon’s high-profile embarrassment doesn’t act as a sufficient deterrent.