I will never forget how Doctor Khumalo, in his weekly Soccer Laduma column some years ago, described a particular scene after the South African national U17 side, of which he was head coach, had just played one of the African nations in an away encounter. With a sense of incredulity, Doc described how one of the opposition “youngsters” was seen hugging and kissing his wife and four kids outside the match venue, as they had come to fetch him.
This writer was driven to mentally replay this extremely disturbing scenario over and over after learning about the shenanigans that came to define this year’s U17 COSAFA Championship, which was eventually claimed by South Africa after beating Zambia on penalties this past weekend. In case you have been in quarantine this past week or so, this is what unfolded in this youth tournament that served as a qualifier for next year’s U17 Afcon in Morocco: four teams, namely Botswana, Comoros Islands, Eswatini and Zimbabwe, were disqualified even before kicking a ball in anger. This was after Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scans conducted prior to the commencement of the competition showed that the respective national teams had at least one player in the squad over the permitted age. What a tragedy for African football. What a shame. Granddads masquerading as kids. Despite the obvious inconvenience to the tournament’s normal order of things, where the kick-off date had to be rescheduled and the show had to go on minus four teams, almost rendering the whole thing a farcical event, it’s a massive dent on the credibility of the continent’s youth football. So many stakeholders of the game, people who genuinely have the best interests of African football at heart, have spoken out time and again against this scourge, over a period of many years, that you would have thought it was a thing of the past. Well, look at all that egg on your face.
Why we are still talking about this, in this day and age, I can never fully comprehend. Make no mistake, though, it’s not something that happens in isolation. It’s never a case of a player just waking up one day and thinking he will present a fraudulent birth certificate at his local academy and somehow hope that it will slip through the system and after that it’s “happily ever after”. You’ll be surprised to learn that individuals within communities and schools, be it coaches or teachers, are actually the instigators of these underhanded tactics, not least because, among other reasons, they just cannot let a brilliant talent miss out on an opportunity just like that, merely because of a minor hiccup in the form of “being over-age”. So, in the dark corners, and if the correct amounts of cash exchange hands, plans are hatched to beat the system.
When someone knows someone who knows someone who knows someone, geddit?
And, I dare point out, these schemes have become par for the course because, by its very nature, football on this continent is rotten to the core, and that could well be an understatement still. A fish rots from the head down, as we all know, and you need not look further than the latest developments at the Confederation of African Football (CAF) headquarters in Egypt, where the man in charge, Ahmad Ahmad, has been handed a five-year ban from football by FIFA for abuse of office, misappropriation of funds and rules concerning the offering and acceptance of gifts, amongst the litany of charges. You must know that this God-forsaken continent is in trouble when the man entrusted with ensuring its development and upkeep is himself accused of spending most of his time getting his hands in the cookie jar. Ha!
It should not be lost on any of us that age-cheating is a serious matter, and I’m not saying anything new when I suggest that any player found to have lied about their age should face the harshest punishment because all that is doing is denying the most deserving kids of their moment in the spotlight. This win-at-all-costs attitude by African national teams ought to be nipped in the bud if we are to be taken seriously out there. I mean, what’s more important: winning in the present with age-cheats, only to get exposed later as the rigours of old age start showing in these madalas, or developing now and taking the losses on the chin, along with the lessons for the future so as to become world beaters one day? I urge you to think about it. We’ve seen it a lot of times with our national teams, where we mop the floor with our European counterparts in junior international tournaments, only to be found wanting at senior level, with the exact same players nogal. Why? Because we put them on a football field when they should be queuing for their SASSA pension grant.
“Appalled” does not begin to describe my reaction upon learning that of the four teams kicked out of the U17 tournament recently, three were actually from Southern Africa. Now, this dispels the ubiquitous myth among Mzansi football fans that you are more likely to find an age-cheat up in West or Central Africa, simply because these folks are more well-built than our lads. But what we seem to forget is that where there’s a will, there’s a way, strange as that sounds when it comes to this subject, and no matter where you are in the world, the brazen nature of cheats often wins the day. We also seem to forget that we have had players coming out to confess that they were cheats during their playing days in our very own PSL, and two that come to mind are Sibusiso Mzizi and Seuntjie Motlhajwa, both formerly with Ajax Cape Town. There was also a Goodman Sauhatsi at Free State Stars.
The southern part of the continent, bar South Africa here and there, has underachieved a lot at both senior and junior national levels when compared to their counterparts from elsewhere on the continent, let alone the world, so you wonder how much desperation has to do with it. There’s the desperation of a kid to realise a long-held dream, after knocking on doors to no avail; the desperation of a coach to make a name for himself by promoting a gem who happens to be over-age; not to mention the desperation of a parent or guardian who, in their kid, has a ticket out of poverty.
Of course, the five-year suspension of Ahmad gives rise to a new broom to come in and hopefully sweep clean. Hard ask, but doable. Our own Patrice Motsepe, with the full backing of SAFA, has put his name forward as a candidate for CAF President and being one of African football characters with the cleanest pair of hands around, a lot of South Africans have expressed support for his candidacy and are hoping that he occupies the hotseat, despite it being such a poisoned chalice. If he does succeed in that ambition, I would imagine one of his most immediate tasks would be to root out this age-cheating nonsense.
Phakama (Stand up) Patrice bakubone (so that they can see you)!
Catch y’all on the rebound,