Football: Age-old problem a priority for AFC

The Equatorial Guinea women's team employ a defensive wall against Australia in 2011. Last week, the Central African nation was turfed out of the qualifying tournament for the 2020 Olympics after Fifa found out that one of their players had used two
The Equatorial Guinea women's team employ a defensive wall against Australia in 2011. Last week, the Central African nation was turfed out of the qualifying tournament for the 2020 Olympics after Fifa found out that one of their players had used two passports with different birth dates.PHOTO: REUTERS
The Equatorial Guinea women's team employ a defensive wall against Australia in 2011. Last week, the Central African nation was turfed out of the qualifying tournament for the 2020 Olympics after Fifa found out that one of their players had used two
Lim Kia Tong, Football Association of Singapore vice-president.

Tough stance on age fraud to guide decisions on investigations involving member nations

Sport has been dogged recently by negative headlines - corruption scandals involving world governing bodies, failed doping tests by top athletes and the ever-present spectre of match-fixing.

The latest issue is age fraud.

Last week, in a post on its website, football's world governing body Fifa said it had booted Equatorial Guinea out of the qualifying tournament for women's football at the 2020 Olympics, after finding that a player had used passports containing different birth dates for the competition.

In the same post, Fifa said that several players are also being investigated over their eligibility.

The Straits Times understands that the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) is also investigating several such cases among its member nations.

In an e-mail statement, the AFC told The Straits Times it cannot comment on suspected individual cases.

NO ROOM FOR AMBIGUITY

Misrepresentation (of age) erodes the very pillar of fair play and sporting spirit.

LIM KIA TONG, Football Association of Singapore vice-president, explaining why age fraud will not be tolerated.

However, it added: "The AFC takes age-cheating very seriously and does not shy away from referring any discovered cases to the AFC disciplinary bodies."

Last October, Nepal was disqualified from the AFC U-16 Championship qualifiers after a player failed a magnetic resonance imaging scan to determine his age.

Age scandals have a long history in football and they are particularly widespread in Africa.

In April 2013, nine footballers from three countries were sent home from the African U-17 Championship for being above age.

A decade earlier, the Kenya U-17 team was disbanded after several players admitted being above age.

Yet, in at least one instance, the issue also unfairly implicated one player. In 2014, Lazio's Cameroonian midfielder Joseph Minala was questioned by the Italian Serie A's federal prosecutor after rumours swirled that he was 41 and not 17. But in May that year, he was cleared of the allegations by an official Italian Football Association ruling.

According to the AFC, there has been a "marked decrease" in the number of cases of over-age players since it started using MRI scans in 2007.

The MRI scans determine the state of fusion of one's radial (wrist) bone. Research conducted by Fifa's Medical Assessment and Research Centre showed that 99 per cent of the time, complete fusion of the radial bone occurs only after a player turns 17. Thus, it is regarded as an effective test to weed out over-age players in U-16 competitions.

For other age-group competitions, the AFC said it requires extensive documentation from member associations, from national ID to school records.

"However, even one case is one too many," it told The Straits Times.

Lim Kia Tong, Football Association of Singapore vice-president and deputy chairman of Fifa's disciplinary committee, agreed, and pointed to the heavy punishments as a reflection of Fifa's zero tolerance towards age fraud.

While he was not on the panel which ruled on the Equatorial Guinea issue, he said: "Misrepresentation (of age) erodes the very pillar of fair play and sporting spirit.

"The sanctions imposed by the Fifa disciplinary committee shall be a benchmark for the AFC disciplinary committee to follow in cases of similar facts and circumstances.

"Member associations of (the) AFC should keep strictly within the boundary of the law if they do not wish to suffer the full force of the sanctions."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 20, 2016, with the headline 'Age-old problem a priority for AFC'. Print Edition | Subscribe