I know many sports writers or commentators that refuse to get excited when it comes to Nigerian age grade football teams. The simple reason is the belief that we cheat at this level and we win at a rate that does not show up with our senior teams, and when we compare to other countries that occasionally win age grade competitions, we see how cheating has underdeveloped our football. This topic is again on my mind, not because we are in a youth tournament [season], but because of what broke in the US recently; the US champion of the Little League World Series were stripped of their title for fielding an ineligible player, a player that resides outside the boundaries of the club. The Jackie Robinson West team, named after the man who broke the colour barrier in American professional sports, recruited players outside the boundaries allocated to them by the Little League Board.
The concept of little league is to have players who are classmates, neighbors or even siblings and not to form an all star team. The Jackie Robinson West team was also the first all black team to win the American championship, they have since their win visited the White House to see President Obama and have been serenaded by all. But the Little League board does not take cheating in any form lightly, and despite all their historical relevance, they have been stripped of their championship. What a shame that adults who run the club would allow 12 and 13 years old to be involved in this mess, because the kids know who their neighbors and classmates are. The adults are teaching the wrong thing and that is why the board has come down hard on the coach and also the district head.
So what are we to learn from this in Nigeria? From the inception of age grade football, Nigeria has presented teams that are far above the age of the competition. The 1985 team that won what was then the U16 championship was filled with adults; it can be said with confidence that there was not a player that was 16 or below. Numerous people have suggested that the average age on that team was 21, but we got away with it and have sustained our relevance in world football by cheating.
Every time there is a competition we look forward to winning because it has become our birth right; we know that taking an above age team is the only path to success. But the real problem is the societal problem of why we continue to allow cheating? No one is willing to stand up and say that this is wrong, instead we hear things like “this is our youngest team so far” or “this is the only way out for the players”. The team is either 17 or under and not just young by face or by the so-called MRI test. It is time someone calls out the coaches and administrators that continue to perpetuate this nonsense in the name of becoming world champions.
The Jackie Robinson West team was flagged in the simplest of ways; the internet. Run the names of the players and you can find their residences and school districts; very simple. It could be the same for Nigerian teams, take a trip to their home towns and you will come up with group photographs of when they were younger. Our players are not spirits, they have had classmates, teachers, church members yet no one seems to know their backgrounds. The time has come for us to man up and challenge this corrupt system in our football development.