Nigeria has faced a fair share of age cheating allegations during FIFA Youth tournaments, at least until the era of MRI tests for U-17 players. FIFA introduced the MRI test in 2009 and claims that it is 99% accurate in identifying players who should be eligible at the U-17 level.
What we do here is to test if the date of birth (DOB) reported by Nigeria's U-17 squads show a difference between the pre-MRI era and the post-MRI era. We are able to locate squad lists at FIFA tournaments or at the African Youth tournament in order to compare.
What do we seek to find? Possibly, that cheating players in Nigeria (during pre-MRI era) report DOBs closer to FIFA cutoff date (i.e. First quarter of the year) in attempt to explain physical development that is more advanced than their teammates. This would be an anomaly since players of all ages in Africa undergo similar development with very little effect of age at the unorganized stages which may last till most players are close to 17. Thus, a more realistic distribution should be one where there is very little cluster. In Western countries player selection tend to favor those born close to cutoff dates and eliminate those that are not at earlier ages primarily because of early participation in organized play. Thus, a cluster of DOBs near cut off dates is expected in Western countries.
We repeat that in post-MRI era, with assumption of less cheating, one should expect a scattered distribution of DOBs among African players reflecting real conditions of the African game and player development.
What we found is astonishing. Here are the key notes: (1) Most players regardless of year of birth reported DOBs in last quarter of the year (4Q below) instead of the first quarter (1Q below) close to FIFA's cutoff date as hypothesized, (2) There is an unexpected significant number of players reporting DOBs that were in later years after FIFA cutoff date (Substract number in parentheses below from those not in parentheses), (3) The phenomenon found in #1 does not change even when only players born in the cutoff year are analyzed (Numbers in parenthesis), and (4) The phenomenon does not show any difference between pre-MRI (Blue) and post-MRI era (Green).
Squad 1Q 2Q 3Q 4Q
2003 5(2) 6(2) 2(2) 7(1)
2007 3(0) 0(0) 4(3) 14(13)
2009 4(0) 2(1) 3(1) 12(10)
2013 1(1) 4(1) 6(3) 10(6)
NOTE: Numbers in parenthesis represent only those born in the FIFA cutoff year.
What is the possible explanation for this befuddling result? Note that other studies find similar results but are unable to advance an explanation. For instance, a study published in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports found strong age effects in FIFA youth competitions with DOBs clustering around the cutoff dates based on player selection process identified above. Importantly, other studies found that the type of distribution found in DOBs of Nigerian squad players is an anomaly present only in squads of West African countries and these countries also report use of more underage players (i.e players younger than 17) than any where else in the world.
Given that Nigerian football administrators, the Nigerian media, and FIFA have periodically confirmed Nigeria's use of overage players in FIFA youth tournaments, we assume the prevalence of age cheating. However, age cheating is a tangential interest here. Instead, the focus is explaining why DOBs reported by Nigerian players cluster in the last quarter of the year and why there is a significant number that report DOBs years further from FIFA cut off date.
The only meaningful explanation for this unexpected cluster of DOBs is motivation to attract scouts from professional clubs in Europe. We are aware from several reports that: (1) Nigerian players' main goal is a European professional contract, (2) European clubs seek to sign young and not old players from developing regions, (3) there is confirmation of age cheating among young Nigerian footballers, (4) there are reports of easy access to international passport alterations and these passports are primary identification documents for players at FIFA tournaments.
The points above represent plausible explanation why players' DOB cluster around the last quarter of the year in order to obtain age advantages as much as possible. Further, the significant occurrence of reported DOBs years further from FIFA cut off date is another option available for players seeking attention of scouts. In essence, the motivation is not only to claim a later year of birth but also a later date of birth.
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