Under-17 age cheating and FIFA's mysterious MRI tests

By Paul Gardner

FIFA’s Under-17 World Cup -- for me, the liveliest and the most enjoyable of all the global tournaments -- has, since its first edition in China in 1985, always been played under a heavy cloud of suspicion.

I covered 10 of the first 11 tournaments, and learned very quickly that there were always murmurings that certain countries were using over-age players.

Particularly under accusation were the African and Asian countries. Certainly, the Africans had done well: Nigeria had won the title in 1985 and had finished as runner-up in 1987, while Guinea and Ivory Coast had both been semifinalists.

But it was the Asians from Saudi Arabia who really brought things out into the open. Winners in 1989 in Scotland, the Saudis were widely and openly derided as over-age. I visited the Portuguese team and asked their coach Carlos Queiroz to elaborate on some comments he had already made. He smiled ... and apologized: “I cannot speak about that. FIFA has told me that if I say anything more, I will be sent home.”

I asked the FIFA press officer if FIFA would look into the accusations that were being made against the Saudis and was told: “FIFA does not investigate rumors. If an official complaint is made to us, yes. But none of the other teams has complained.”

But something was not right. Strangely, the Saudis suddenly dropped out of the qualifying rounds for the next tournament, and have never appeared in another U-17 World Cup. Now the suspicion widened to include the notion that FIFA had warned the Saudis off, but did not want the matter made public.

The African dominance strengthened. Ghana was champion in 1991, beating Spain in the final. Juan Santisteban, the Spanish coach, red-faced, very angry, told me: “I know from all my experience as a youth coach that Ghana is using over-age players.” Nigeria won in 1993, Ghana repeated in 1995.

Brazil took the title in 1997 and 1999, France in 2001. Now both Brazil and France were suspect. FIFA had been using x-ray tests to verify the players ages, but these tests were treated scornfully as being notoriously inaccurate. It was said they had a margin of error of several years.

What looked like a serious attempt to clear up the mess came with FIFA’s announcement that it was replacing the x-ray tests with much more accurate (and much more expensive) MRI scans of players’ wrist bones. The tests would begin at the 2003 World Cup in Finland.

That year began with a remarkable admission from the Nigerian sports minister Steven Akiga: “We have for a while now been fielding players far above the ages agreed for some of the international age-group competitions. This has not helped our football and as such we must now fight against these age cheats.”

The 2003 tournament seemed to confirm that the threat of the MRI scans had weakened the African teams. For the first time in the 10 editions of the tournament, no African team got out of the first round. The same thing happened in 2005.

Even so, FIFA’s position remained curiously unclear. During the 2005 tournament in Finland, Dr. Jiri Dvorak, FIFA’s chief medical officer, had reluctantly agreed to an interview. He told me virtually nothing, except for one extraordinary assertion: the results of the MRI scans would not be made public -- they were for FIFA’s records only. I asked the obvious question: if over-age players are detected, would no one be told? Would nobody be thrown out, or banned? Dvorak simply balked, and did not answer the question.

If FIFA’s mysterious actions were having a deterrent effect, it did not last long. Nigeria was back as champion in 2007, runner-up in 2009, and champion again in 2013 and 2015. Throughout those years, FIFA has stuck to its decision to work in secrecy.

Or has it? Evidence that age-cheating was still alive and well came in 2013 when the BBC reported that nine players had been banned from the African U-17 championship because wrist MRIs had shown them to be over-age. The report also mentioned, in passing, that “results from U-17 World Cups in 2003, 2005 and 2007 revealed that up to 35% of players were over-age.” A shocking revelation, apparently from FIFA, but one that has never been confirmed.

The problem will not go away. In fact, it has returned with a vengeance.  Again, it is Nigeria involved. And the news is deeply disturbing as it comes only a year after Nigeria won the 2015 U-17 World Cup with a team that was widely suspected of having over-age players.  

Earlier this month, MRI scans were administered to the 60-player Nigerian under-17 squad. Incredibly, 26 of the players were pronounced to be over-age and were thrown out of the camp (but, conforming with the experience that nothing can be for sure in this befuddling topic, two of the players were later re-instated).

Devastating news for Nigeria, and not good for FIFA’s attempts to quash the problem. Then again, maybe not so deadly. Because the reliability of MRI tests, hailed not so long ago as an infallible way of determining a player’s age, are open to serious doubt.

An Aug. 11 article in the prestigious Scientific American points out that FIFA’s faith in MRI scans comes from a study conducted by its own Medical Assessment and Research Center. This involved the assessment of MRI scans given to some 500 teenagers.

But the conclusions drawn from the study, says Scientific American, are mistaken: The “major mistake lies in applying these population-level statistics to individual athletes.”

The wrist scans show bone growth, which is not, it is claimed, as uniform as FIFA would have it: “wrist bone growth stages can occur at a wide range of ages.” The argument is statistical, saying that there is really too much variation among individuals to permit reliable verdicts on age. In short, there is no significant correlation between the chronological age and bone development.

So there we are. We have the Nigerians, whose top officials have openly admitted that they have been cheating. We have FIFA apparently administering MRI scans that ought to reveal the cheating, but whose results are not published. Except that the BBC has apparently -- cited them. And we have a respected scientific publication seriously questioning whether the MRI results are reliable anyway.

The next step should surely be for FIFA to call a halt to its counter-productive secrecy, release the results from its own tests during the U-17 World Cups, and throw some light on just how widespread and deeply embedded age-cheating might be. But such a clearing of the decks might also involve FIFA in the embarrassing and politically awkward business of revoking the titles of teams shown to have used over-age players.

And so to the final and probably insurmountable difficulty. There can unquestionably be a genuine problem in establishing age. Not all countries have the impeccable birth-registration and record-keeping procedures that are the norm in the western world.

Where no reliable birth documentation exists, or no documentation at all, is a young player to be adjudged a cheat because an x-ray or an MRI scan or any other probably unreliable test “proves” that he is older than he believes?
23 comments about "Under-17 age cheating and FIFA's mysterious MRI tests".
  1. Richard Brown, August 15, 2016 at 5:10 a.m.

    Yes there is a problem with undocumented kids in Nigeria and in other countries like Syria now.

    We did not need tests to suspect they were overage we knew. Any test given a lawyer can make a case why they are inconclusive. That why we all love lawyers my wife of 50 years is a lawyer. She was in Nixon's old law firm Mudge Rose Guthrie Alexander and Ferdon and moved on after they closed.

    Yes they do well in under 17. I hate the word cheating in our sport. But it happens even in youth club soccer here. But if it can be proved the team is out of league or tournament play and the coaches is name is mud and the club is always remembered as cheaters.

    Some of these kids are put in under 19 tournaments like the Dallas Cup. When that happens if they meet another Nigerian on a team. Next thing you know they are on that team in the next Dallas cup. How did that happen it's like pay to play.

    Then you hear a guy like Gardener calling that team one of the most skilled teams in the United States. From that one or two of those players wind up on a MLS team.

    I know this is true because it actually happened before.

  2. ROBERT BOND, August 15, 2016 at 11:41 a.m.

    wish we could get those mris on some of the Hispanic teams we play......

  3. Ric Fonseca replied, August 15, 2016 at 3:50 p.m.

    Claro que si Roberto! Get a whole bunch of MRI scanners to ALL of the fields, where youth soccer is played, and not just the Latino or "Hispanic" teams/fields, but how about the inner cities, the urban/sub African Americans, Italian-Americans, Argentine-Americans, European-Americans, and anyone who just happens to look a tad bit overage, has facial hair at 11 or 12, a deep voice, or just happens to eat kosher-burritos for breakfast, lunch and dinner, or a fallafel sandwich, etc. OK, there is cheating going on, and it is like a virulent virus, so please just don't focus on "...the Hispanic teams we play...(sic)"!!!

  4. Ginger Peeler replied, August 15, 2016 at 9:25 p.m.

    Amen, Ric!

  5. Richard Brown, August 15, 2016 at 1:30 p.m.

    Any one who cheats on age to win a game is a low life person. That is all we have to know for sure.

  6. Ginger Peeler replied, August 15, 2016 at 9:27 p.m.

    It's the coaches who are taking advantage of the system and the kids.

  7. Ric Fonseca replied, August 16, 2016 at 12:01 a.m.

    Ginger has it spot on! I remember about 20 years ago while I was sitting as a CalSouth Youth District Commissioner, and my wife was a club registar when she received notification that an overage player had been discovered on a local club team she registered. Of course, after looking into it, I as comish and she as registrar, we found the culprit. But lo and behold, when the time came for a hearing at the state office, she was also hauled in for the usual Torquemada-esque style of, "yer guilty by association, until proven innocent!" I couldn't participate so I'd to recuse myself, but the club president and my wife had to travel 35 miles one way for the hearing. After all was said and done, it turned out that a very unseeming and highly placed person with a PhD, the manager of the team, had the abdominal fortitude to fess up right in fron of everyone and said that he'd been the one who had doctored the kids BC, with the parents knowledge, making him 1 1/2 years older than his age group. Of course, my wife was "exonorated" of any wrong doing - you can surmise that it was assumed she was in cahoots, as were the club president and team coach - BTW, ALL Latinos) but the team manager expelled from any further participation in youth soccer. He apologized to one and all, saying that the desire to win at all and any cost was just so inviting, admitting that he'd used his place of work's then high quality computers and copying machine. The point, it happens all the time, but whether PG can bring this more to light, I don't think so!!!

  8. Kent James, August 15, 2016 at 2:25 p.m.

    This is a difficult issue; I can't imagine there is a test that can determine if someone is born on Dec. 31 (eligible) rather than Jan. 1 (overage). So there must be a pretty wide margin of error. It does sound like the threat of an accurate test discouraged teams that knew they had overage players. Whatever is the case, I'm glad Paul Gardner is looking into it. The press does need to enlighten the public about these issues.

  9. Richard Brown, August 16, 2016 at 8:04 a.m.

    Ric what a person that PhD and that kids parent must be to have agreed to that. What are we teaching that kid that it is ok to cheat?

    You know that is the rational a lot of people give for cheating it was just changing the birth certificate a few days or a few weeks so he can still play on the same team as his friends.

    Back in my day you could buy a forged birth certificate for 150 dollars. Or a travel agent had these super copy machines.

  10. Ric Fonseca replied, August 16, 2016 at 2:06 p.m.

    Robert, would yopu be "surprised" if you knew that one can still buy whatever papers one needs, from whatever country, and you don't even have to leave your car? There are many, many, many places in LA, SF, NYC, Philly, Miami, where this is happening, but about the only thing that has changed is the cost, chalk it up to "inflation." For example, I can drive down one certain avenue in LA fairly close to a Consulate Office, and see countless of guys signaling by holding out a hand with the thumb and forefinger indicating the size of a card, then if interested one pulls over and the "negotiating" process begins, with everyone looking over their shoulders for signs of authorities, etc.

  11. ROBERT BOND, August 16, 2016 at 8:56 a.m.

    Ric-was not aware there were millions of those other demographics with situational documentation......

  12. charles smith, August 16, 2016 at 11:26 a.m.

    We just returned from Peru where several age groups from our club in Austin participated in the Copa Peru tournament in Trujillo. My son who is an 2002 played up with the 2000 age group. He is 6'1" and the tallest member of the team from Austin Texas. We played young men clearly in their 20s. We asked the tournament officials and they told us bluntly that all South American teams play with players older than the age cut off. "it is just the way it is". We stood at the registration table as one young man tried to enter for his team by himself since he was late. Since we were there, the official asked him the name of his mother on his player card, guess what, the kid did not know his mother's name. He was trying to enter in the 00 age bracket but look like one of the cab driver's we saw earlier that day (mid 20s). It was challenging for our team, but fun. We did not go to win, but wanted to see how we would match up. It was not really a fair comparison. My son, the youngest at 14, drew a lot of attention from the opposing teams since he was so big. Funny how cheaters think everyone is a cheat. Justification?

  13. Richard Brown, August 16, 2016 at 12:36 p.m.

    Curious Charles did you bring guest players and if you did how long did you practice together for this tournament?

  14. charles smith replied, August 16, 2016 at 2:40 p.m.

    That is amazing. I live in San Antonio, the area I live in is full of kids that would fit into the "land of the Giants", my 15 yo is 6'2" and is just average height compared to his friends. Now, SA is 70% Hispanic (and my son's are 50% Hispanic) and they are giants compared to the boys on their soccer teams which are mostly Hispanic. The team from Austin was a group of boys that train indoors with the coach learning skill moves and technical aspects of the game (foot skills, think Futsol) but never train together on the pitch. They are all on different club teams, so essentially they are all "guest players".

  15. Richard Brown, August 16, 2016 at 12:42 p.m.

    Also 14 and 6'1" what are you feeding them in Austin.

    My brother is 80 now and shrunk an inch he is 5'6". His son is 19 and 6'5" I look at his friends and girl friend they are all big. I call where he lives South Salem, NY the land of the Giants.

  16. ROBERT BOND replied, August 17, 2016 at 9:23 a.m.

    yes, looking at the parents,it is a testimony to good nutrition.......

  17. charles smith, August 16, 2016 at 3:40 p.m.

    My younger son's club is not bad (ranked 25th in the nation for U14 by Top Drawer soccer) and they have played in Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, and Belgium. They are always so small compared to the Europeans. They usually play up an age level, but now I am wondering if the Europeans were being honest about their players ages. The team usually does well, but it is always very physical. I can see how it would hurt our players in that they would be overshadowed by a more developed, testosterone enhanced, older players and then not pursued by scouts. I saw that you commented on the Dallas Cup initially. At the U14 level, all the players looked to be at the same developmental stage, but watching the U16 - U18 groups all these boys looked like very fit and muscular men. Huge. There is so much at stake for players not in the US. Many come from nothing and are paid to pay for the academies at age 12. Why wouldn't a parent tell a club their child is 12 when they are really 14 to give them a shot of getting out of poverty. My son will train with Granada of La Liga for 3 month starting in September. It is one of the few academies that does not pay players until they are 17. He had to prove himself everyday during tryouts, not only to the coaches, but to the parents that see him as a threat to their child's future earnings. Here in the US, our motivation is quite different. Reputation, ego, job advancement for coaches, but not much advantage for the kids since most will get a partial or merit scholarship to college. If a college scholarship is the goal and only goal, we would be wiser just to save all the expense of gear, travel, clubs, private coaching, camps, nutrition, injury prevention, medical bills, and so much more and put it into a 529 plan instead. However, the "beautiful game" has so much more to offer than just financial payoffs.

  18. Richard Brown, August 16, 2016 at 4:31 p.m.

    We put our under 14 in the Dallas cup years ago. Brooklyn Italians Landon was also 14 back then. We had a really good team, but just before the tournament two of our backs got hurt. We could not recover from that. Funny thing was for some reason cops were at our games. Maybe they thought some of us was in the Mafia.

  19. charles smith, August 16, 2016 at 4:56 p.m.

    That is funny!!

  20. Scott Johnson, August 17, 2016 at 2:45 p.m.

    Perhaps rather than age, team formation ought to be constrained by some other easily-made physical measurement, one that correlates well with age (and may correlate better with physical development than age--there is lots of developmental variability, after all, especially with children)? i.e. a 14-player boys' team roster at one category must have an average team height of 5' or less, and an average weight of less than 95 pounds (both measurements to be made with jerseys and gear on, excluding shoes), and a maximum of 5'6" and 110 pounds? Obviously one problem with this approach as kids grow during the year, and a kid (or team) might become ineligible at some point in the season. OTOH, the limits under such rules of competition might increase as a season progresses (for 12-13 year old boys, e.g. expect about a pound a month). This would help to solve the common problem of teams consisting of the largest and most developed children the coach can find as well...

  21. Richard Brown, August 17, 2016 at 6:50 p.m.

    Scott that sounds like Pop Warner football

  22. Bob Ashpole, August 18, 2016 at 7:46 a.m.

    Youth teams should be focused on player development rather than winning competitions. With USSF extending the DA to U12s, I have to wonder what they are thinking. Obviously travel reduces training opportunities. I don't see any player development purpose in having U12s travel outside of their local area, much less nationally. The DA clubs are not small clubs in rural areas that need to travel to find a match. I don't have current numbers, but about 8-10 years ago the county I lived in had 32,000 kids playing organized soccer matches every weekend. Yet they had many, many travel teams.

  23. Richard Brown, August 18, 2016 at 8:51 a.m.

    When I started coaching kids all the youth teams every age from under 6 played on a adult field 11 on a side. We played club to find better completion. We trained using small group play. Because even on an adult field their is small group play near the ball before someone can make the break out pass.

    Well there are some places one in NJ that have a league forget the name of it where every team in it is a very very good team. So teams from everywhere go there on the weekend and play on the day they normally don't play. Teams under 16 here play on Saturday. Then on Sunday they played there. No standing were kept at least back then. But every one knew who the super teams were.

    On travel teams you have travel and then you had Travel. Real travel is Best division and next best.

    Glorified travel is any division below those two.

    If you win in let's call it B division. Then stay in B how does that help your players develope. You should move up to A not stay in B.

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