Turning back time: Age cheating in football

Poverty, limited life chances and the desire to win at all costs are contributing to an epidemic of age cheating in football. Coaches, parents, clubs, schools and the sport’s national controlling body all contribute to the growing malaise by either encouraging it or turning a blind eye.

The Nike tournament for under 15s, played in Soweto last weekend, was a farce. Some teams pulled out of the competition when they realised that others had overage players—and the sponsors threatened to pull out of the competition if age cheating is not properly addressed.

Last year South Africa’s under-14 football team was disqualified in France when university students and high-school learners were found among its members.

Cora Burnett, a sports sociologist at the University of Johannesburg, believes that poverty is the main driver of the problem.

“You have to understand the social world of professional sport and the dreams of young boys to make it in sport. As [only] about 0,005% actually succeed in making a living out of sport the pressure is there, especially for youngsters living in chronic poverty, to find a pathway that may lead to a career in sport.

“For these young boys the pressure is on to find a position in a team, where the competition is fierce. Pressure from the coach and parents ... may also contribute to the overage syndrome.

“The context that about 20% of children in rural areas and impoverished communities do not have birth certificates or valid [identity] documents leaves the gap for unethical conduct [concerning age].

“Given the [nature] of poverty in a society where dishonesty often pays—high criminality, dubious ethical standards and ‘contaminated’ values—and a sports fraternity with pressures to succeed, overage participation needs to be unpacked,” Burnett says.

She says that age cheating cannot be justified. “Sport is about fairness and fair competition. [Age cheating] is dishonest and reflects a corrupt value system. For if you cannot make it at a young age and have to cheat, maturation and some exposure will not contribute to you making it eventually.

“Youngsters at the ages of 18 and 19 are included in national teams, therefore there should be action against adults who control the sporting careers of youngsters,” Burnett says.

“No cheating can be justified—it can merely be understood and explained. Punitive actions should be in place to promote ethical conduct and values that may find some transfer into everyday behaviour. Crime does not pay—why should cheating be allowed?

“It is no different from cheating by taking performance-enhancing substances and the international ethical standards and rules are clear about that.

“Physiologically a boy or girl of 12 cannot compete fairly against one of 16—physical and neurological maturation impacting on motor skills plays a major part to disadvantage the younger player,” she says.

Chris Fortuin, a former football player and now a lecturer in sports psychology at the University of Johannesburg, agrees that football players lie about their age because they want to get out of poverty and also want exposure.

“Poverty is one of the reasons that drives football players to cheat and parents encourage their children to do it so that their children can get exposure, promotion and get out of poverty. The majority of the people [involved] live below the poverty line and for them cheating is the only option they have,” he says.

“Cheating exposes [players] to travelling and a chance of playing for big teams and it betters their lives. Clubs want to win at all cost, so they encourage it. Clubs and coaches are to be blamed for this.

“Money drives the issue because it can drive [players] from poverty. It is rife in Africa, Asia and in South America; it is a big challenge for football. The South African Football Association is not regulating the issue properly. It cannot be justified,” says Fortuin.

Augusto Palacios, development technical director at Orlando Pirates, says the ease with which birth documents are acquired contributes to the problem.

“Home affairs needs to do something about birth certificates. They should have photos, because now [cheats] use their brother’s, sister’s and neighbour’s certificate. In the past five years we have dismissed 38 players because of this,” he says.

Sika Leotlela, a development coach for the past 10 years in Meadowlands, Soweto, blames parents and coaches who, out of desperation for a better life for themselves and their children, or a desire to benefit their clubs, employ unscrupulous means for players to succeed, especially when there are financial rewards for the clubs.

Coaches, he says, “encourage players to cheat, especially when we are playing in tournaments that have a lot of money and where we get jerseys. They go out and look for old players who can win the tournament and play young players only in tournaments that do not have money.

“Parents also play a big role as they also tell their children to do it, because they know that they have a big chance of playing for big teams such as Chiefs, Pirates and Sundowns.

“If you play for under-20s and coaches tell you that you are not good enough, you change your age and play for under-17s, where you are going to be good. It is all about money—they want money, there’s nothing aside from that.”

He says the problem is more widespread than people think.

“If you go to any team in the Premier Soccer League you will find players who are overaged—each and every team. Teams encourage their players to cheat,” says Leotlela. “Our football is going backwards if we teach our children to steal.”

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