IAM not a fan of Jose Mourinho but I like his candidness. When he mentioned that he suspected Samuel Eto’o was not 33 years old but either 35 or 37, I thought he was going nuts.
A few months after that statement, Mourinho stands vindicated, especially after Eto’o’s indifferent performance in the past EPL season and his failure to shake off a minor knee injury he sustained at Chelsea in time for the World Cup.
I had never considered age-cheating as a major challenge and threat in football considering modern technology and the traceability of players’ history.
However, a recent chat with the owner of a prominent soccer academy brought to my attention not just the dangers of age-cheating but also the depth it has taken root in this country.
It brought memories of certain international players from West Africa whose age raised huge debate.
Names that come to mind are Obafemi Martins, Rigobert Song and Taribo West.
Players had got away with age-cheating until bone-testing technology came into play. We even had our own Newton Katanha implicated after what was considered a short-term injury took too long to heal.
I then started looking at the effects of age-cheating on the development of our game and what came up is scaring. The worst part is the wastage of resources, that is, money, energy and time on undeserving (and mostly undevelopable) people.
There are certain skills and techniques that are adaptable to and at a certain age range and beyond that age any effort is a total waste.
Everyone is preaching about junior football development now that we have, at least, two years in international football wilderness. However, this will all count for nothing if we do not stem the rampant age-cheating that has dogged the whole nation from schools to soccer academies to national leagues and even junior national teams.
We have players who come out in national newspapers whose profiles vis-à-vis their age leave a lot to be desired. Mthulisi Maphosa and Ephraim Mazarura are classic examples. Maphosa’s current date of birth is 7 July 1987. That means he will be turning 27 next month on July 7. His playing history includes teams like Zimbabwe Saints, Sporting Lions, Monomotapa United, TP Mazembe, FC Platinum and Highlanders.
He was at Sporting Lions in 2003.
Calculating backwards, that means he came to that team when he was 15. And this is after not less than a two-year stint at Zimbabwe Saints meaning he started playing top-flight football when he was about 13.
According to Ephraim Mazarura’s profile in one of the H-Metro editions, he was born on 24 November 1986. His Premiership debut was in 2000.
That is as a 13-year-old. Does that make sense?
Our national under-20 captain, Ronald Pfumbudzai, is another player whose age and playing profile do not tie up. Again according to his player profile in one of H-Metro editions, he was born on 25 December 1994. That is to say he is 19.
As one of his achievements, he was Hippo Valley Player of the Year in the 2011 season, when he was 16.
He deliberately skipped his stint at Simba Stars in 2010 when he was supposed to be 15. Assuming he went to Simba Stars after completing his O’Levels it means he completed Form Four when he was 14.
Going back means he started secondary school at 10. And Grade One when he was three.
These guys are not alone.
The problem here is these players ‘get finished’ well before they reach 30 years and you wonder why. You can also imagine the birth and growth of the mentality that it’s not possible to play at the highest level when you are truly young but only when you are ‘fixed’ young.
We have players who have gone on to play competitive football beyond 35 years of age.
Innocent Mapuranga, Hebert Dick, Mernard Mupera, Zvenyika Makonese, Britto Gwere, Lazarus Muhoni, Brighton Chandisaita and Gilbert Mushangazhike are names that come to mind. If you look at their playing history, it makes sense.
If players can go this far you then wonder why we have so much age-cheating. And who does it benefit? And how do you celebrate a birthday or age that is not yours?
There is even concern that some schools have taken to hiring some over-aged people just to help them win the Copa Coca-Cola tournament.
If these reports are true then we are destroying ourselves.
No wonder people are beginning to doubt the true age of some of the so-called gems, like Simba Sithole of Dynamos who were ‘unearthed’ at schools tournaments.
His failure to rise to expected levels cast a cloud of doubt on his actual age.
If we are to have any meaningful development this is an area that needs immediate attention, investigation and correction.
Firstly, we need to create a national database for all soccer players starting at primary school level. This enables traceability of each player’s history from an early age. Any alteration to a player’s history at a later stage is easily noticed.
Secondly, we need proper regulation of soccer academies.
They have done well to assist where Zifa had failed but the need to succeed at any cost is overshadowing the intended benefit. Younger players are more lucrative on the football market hence the temptation to alter players’ age.
Proper registration of both the academy and its players is needed.
Thirdly, and most important, a vibrant junior national league is needed. With this in place, players are noticed at an early age and their development and graduation to higher leagues is easily traceable.
Peter Ndlovu, Lloyd Mutasa, Muteji brothers, Memory Mucherahowa, Desmond Maringwa, Mbidzo brothers are some of the yesteryear stars whose playing history is easily traceable such that any alteration to their age would have been easily identified.
We need real young players to play for our junior national teams so that we identify areas that need rectification rather than win tournaments with over aged players who would not last the distance we expect them to.
Bothwell Mahlengwe is a banker and former Premiership footballer and can be contacted, for feedback, at – [email protected]