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
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
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
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.
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
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?