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Friday, Nov 15, 2019

FIFA U-17 World Cup: ‘Age cheats have crippled defending champions Nigeria’

Column | Accusations of age cheating have blighted Nigeria national football team’s success at international age group tournaments in recent years. In 2016, a staggering 26 members of Nigeria’s Under-17 side failed an age test carried out ahead of an African Cup of Nations qualifier

fifa-u17-world-cup-2017 Updated: Oct 04, 2017 10:13 IST
Kalu Uche
Kalu Uche
Hindustan Times
Kelechi Nwakali (No 10) of Nigeria lifts the trophy the FIFA Under-17 World Cup 2015, after they defeated Mali in the final at Estadio Sausalito in Chile on November 8, 2015.
Kelechi Nwakali (No 10) of Nigeria lifts the trophy the FIFA Under-17 World Cup 2015, after they defeated Mali in the final at Estadio Sausalito in Chile on November 8, 2015.(FIFA via Getty Images)

The 2017 FIFA Under-17 World Cup is all set to kick off in India, but sadly, defending champions and five times winners Nigeria will be missing. As a Nigerian, who will be playing in the Indian Super League (ISL) this season, it pains not to see the Golden Eaglets in India.

Having won the FIFA U-17 World Cup in 2013 and 2015, Nigeria would have played their third straight World Cup. But administrative bungling will deny our talented boys the honour of representing Nigeria on the world stage. There cannot be a bigger disappointment.

Nigeria could not qualify for the World Cup in India as they failed to reach the final round of the CAF (Confederation of African Football) qualifying tournament. The top four teams from the CAF region which qualified for the World Cup in India are Mali, Ghana, Guinea and Niger.

After having earned the rare honour of winning the Under-17 World Cup in its inaugural edition in 1985, Nigeria’s journey in the World Cup has been a roller-coaster ride.

Apart from finishing on top of the podium on five occasions, they have finished runners-up thrice but have also failed to qualify for the showpiece event on another five occasions. Nigeria also failed to qualify for the World Cup twice in succession in 1997 and 1999.

But this time, I am going to miss our Nigerian boys very much. I will be playing for Delhi Dynamos this season and I believe Indians have a lot of respect for Nigerian footballers who have played for top Indian clubs since the Seventies. The fans will surely miss some good quality Nigerian football.

Age fraud is becoming a major issue in world sport and Nigeria have suffered too.

Last year, 26 of our top junior players reportedly failed an age test. With just two players from the 2015 U-17 World Cup-winning team available, Nigeria were badly depleted against Niger in a qualifying match. It was a disaster. Effectively, the entire squad and the coach had left the country in the lurch.

In 2013, Nigeria suffered due to age cheats. The national team was left without its main players after failing an MRI test. FIFA introduced MRI scans to check the ages of players at the 2009 Under-17 World Cup, which took place in Nigeria.

Nigeria must learn from their mistakes and the officials must be honest to admit errors and amend their ways. Nigeria must start preparing for the next World Cup right away. Players who fudge their age must be severely dealt with. Clean footballers are the strength of a nation.

With Nigeria absent, who will win this year’s FIFA U-17 World Cup?

Unlike the senior tournament, the FIFA U-17 World Cup results are difficult to predict. There are lot of good teams out there, but in my opinion, the final four should be Brazil, Spain, Germany and England.

(Kalu Uche is a former Nigerian World Cupper who scored against Greece and South Korea in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. The former La Liga star will be seen in action in this year’s ISL)