Segun Odegbami on Nigerian U-17 Age Cheats (a must read by FIFA and NFF)

Written By Segun Odegbami

It is Wednesday night. I am sitting and wondering what to write about this week. The eye of the world is riveted on the World Cup Draws event. I may be there for the show and shall report my experiences on this page.

From next week those of us in the business of football analysis will have a field day peering into our crystal balls and predicting how games will go, how players will play, and how far Nigeria can get from the opposing teams that will be thrown up by the draws. Until that happens I am checking my mailbox for anything interesting.

I open my box and find one amongst tons of letters that attracts my full attention. It accuses me of complicity in the matter of the recently-concluded under-17 FIFA championship and wonders why I have not commented since the conclusion of the event either about the ‘successful’ organisation of the event or the exhilarating performances of the Golden Eaglets, a performance that seems to have soothed the nerves of Nigerians and lifted their spirit in contrast to the Super Eagles’ World Cup qualifying matches that kept people’s blood-pressure soaring high through most of the months of the campaign.

The writer wonders if Adokie Amiasimaka has not now been vindicated by the silence that has now followed his explosive revelation during the championship that the Nigerian captain is a twenty-something year old man and not the teenager he claims to be.

The majority point of view is that even if Adokie had the evidence his timing was wrong and that he should have waited until the end of the championship, allowed the visitors to go, and then raised the matter! Well, it has been weeks since the championship ended. Nothing has happened. No one is saying or doing anything. Is the issue raised by Adokie not of significance any more? Has time diminished the relevance of inquiry and verification of the issue? Has the matter been overtaken by events? Should it be forgotten and swept under the carpet?

I am thinking. Obviously my silence has not escaped the attention of some observant public. I owe it to my readers to express an opinion one way or the other. My first reaction is a reminder of an article I wrote ahead of the championship. In that piece I promised I shall only celebrate Nigeria’s victory or performance if it is achieved with integrity.

The greatest gift I give myself all the time is the right to choose who I want to be and how I want my every action and word to reflect the greatest version of myself. I’d rather be silent than embrace standards and values that diminish who I am. It has been with great difficulty that I have resisted the temptation to ventilate my feelings on the under-17 championship and damn the consequences. But common sense has held me back, and, so, my deafening silence.

I guess I am waiting, like many others, for the ‘appropriate’ time, when no one shall be accused of being unpatriotic; when no one shall be accused of taking cheap shots at those in NFF today because they want to discredit them so as to remove them and take over their positions; when the international community will not be around and no one can be accused of washing dirty linens in public; when my words would not be seen as a stain on my country’s image and reputation; and when it will not be considered ‘sinful’ to keep silent in the face of tyranny!

Unfortunately, the more I think of it the more it dawns on me how bad our situation really is. Such time will never come! As far as most Nigerians are concerned the Under-17 championship has come and gone; Adokie’s ‘wrong’ is making his allegation during the championship; the FIFA President has made his own pronouncement on the matter and insisted indirectly that it was not FIFA’s business to question the integrity of a country’s documentation to determine the age of its players; and the matter is dead and buried and over! Next chapter!

Unfortunately for some of us the fundamental issues in the matter cannot be swept under the carpet because they impact on the future of our children, on the development of our cherished game, on the image and reputation of our country and on our individual and collective values as Nigerians. When, therefore, will be the ‘right’ time to speak up and do something?

For the sake of the reader whose mail has precipitated my present thought process permit me to reproduce excerpts from an article I wrote a few weeks before the championship. It provides the answer for my present silence and why I did not join in celebrating the Eaglets.

The Golden Eaglets Must Win With Integrity!

In 1988, after the 1987 World Youth championship, in my naivety and with the purest of intentions I did not have to do more than a cursory logical computation, peeling the skin from the information that was in the public domain, to scream out loud that some of the players we used in the championship could not be the ages they claimed.

Those who were in charge of Nigerian football at the time were enraged. It was such a ‘heinous’ crime that I became victim of unwritten ostracisation from football administration for many years after that. It was such a serious charge, with potentials for massive international scandal that, were there no elements of some truth, I would have been sued for treason!

The shock is that there was not even a whimper from the football authorities. Against a lack of evidence to ‘convict’ anyone it became a matter of time before everyone went silent and became part of the complicity!

The most annoying defence put up by some people is that other countries (mostly from Africa) must be guilty of the same offence. A few years after the 1987 incident the country was caught in a documentation malpractice and was suspended by FIFA for a few years suffering international humiliation.

After that, rather than create better ways of verifying documents, the country ‘invested’ in perfecting documents submitted on the players to FIFA.

So, the initial cancer ate deeper into the fabric! The rewards for success at that level became too alluring that many Nigerians joined in the racket. It became such a lucrative business that hordes of academies sprung up all over the country marketing supposedly young players and as a result parents and agents in the country would do almost anything to get their wards into the under-17 category of the national team!

Cheating became an acceptable practice with parents and some football institutions as willing agents. Sports greatest values were abandoned on the altar of lucre. Hard work, morals, discipline, and fair play lost their place as the means to success!

Everyone in sport knew what was going on but was helpless against the practise, silenced by the overwhelming celebrations of ‘successes’ that left a hollow feeling in the pits! It was great to be part of a national celebration of ‘success’ but it was such a moral burden that many people had to live with, accepting unashamedly that cheating was okay for as long as others were probably also doing it. (I then wrote about a Nigerian lad who played at the NUGA games two years ago, was in 300 level when he did, had left the country for two years after NUGA and was a member of the under-17 team in camp!)

The arithmetic is easy to work out! No matter the computation one comes up with, no matter the allowances one makes up for early schooling, ingenuity and academic excellence, no matter the parameters used in measuring rapid acceleration through the classes, there is no way such a player that left secondary school 7 years ago would be less than 17 years old by October 2009!

There would have been many Nigerians that know this young man, starting from his parents, his teachers in primary and secondary school, his mates in the neighbourhood he grew up in, his class and school mates through Primary, secondary and university.

In October 2009, we all would have sat and watched this young man outplay children 7 or 8 years his junior, ‘excelled’ and brought ‘victory’ to Nigeria. We would have feted him, celebrated him and made him a hero. We would have rewarded him with gifts and honours along with his co-conspirators in this racket, made him a model for the next generation and perpetuated falsehood and cheating!

Yet, we would have known all the time that this is a moral baggage; that the victory, the glory, the honours, the accolades, all was fraudulently achieved and undeserved.

This country is in darkness. Even in sport that brings us so much joy, and draws from us the best in our talent and potentials as human beings so abundantly blessed by God, knowing fully well that we can win cleanly, with dignity and integrity, we choose instead the short cut and selling our souls in the end!

Nigeria does not have to win the FIFA under-17 championship by all means. But who says the country cannot win it with its best students under-17? Even if they don’t NOW the country would have started the process of developing authentic talents, the ones that represent the values we want to stand for as a nation that would go ahead into the future with experiences and exposure from the 2009 event to become winners of bigger trophies in the years to come! That I can truly celebrate!

So that’s it. That’s why I did not celebrate. Let me take the argument one step further than Adokie. Let me put my foot in it properly, after all there can be no more international sanctions following confirmation by the FIFA President himself that all the players that took part in the championship were of the correct age. So, that’s settled. I have no problem with one player being over-aged in the Nigerian team. What I actually have problem with is the challenge of identifying just one in the entire team that is actually under-17.

Just as the lord told his prophet that if he finds only one person righteous in the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah he would spare both cities from destruction, so am I thinking that if I can find just one player in the entire Golden Eaglets team, still in secondary school, and below the age of 17 at the time of the last tournament I shall never write a line about cheating again in Nigerian football and shall apologise to all Nigerians. It is that bad!

(Culled from the Nigerian Guardian Newspaper 5th dec 2009)