Cheating at the Youth Level: An Essay
A few months ago I had to release one of my players from our Under 19 squad letting him know that he is now too old to continue with us and his performances have not been enough to convince the first team to sign him. His response to the situation was more inspiring than surprising or insulting. He pointed a finger right back at me and let me know straight up the damages the age rigging problem is doing to youth football. I am dead against age-rigging and have been standing up against it wherever I have worked for years now.
The age rigging issue is rampant in Indian football where it’s easy for an 18 year old to become 15 again and buy himself 24-36 more months of development in the game. They usually turn out to be exceptional at 16 (because they are maybe 20) and later just burn out of join the ranks of other mediocre players.
This player started in the game at a really young age with every hope to make it as a professional and worked harder than anyone I know to get there. His frustrations and disgust at seeing boys as old or older than him changing their age to become 3-4 years younger are expressed vividly in an essay titled “The Sleeping Giant” which he intended to share with anyone in the media willing to publish it.
It’s been a few weeks since he sent it across to me and I am keen to share it with people who are involved in the game at whatever level in India or overseas to understand how damaging such practices that are now considered ‘acceptable’ can be.
THE SLEEPING GIANT
Much has been said and written about the coming of age of Indian football. With the advent of ISL and the entry and triumph of corporate big wigs such as JSW in the I-League, football in India definitely seems to be on the right track. The country has seen an increase in professionalism, inflow of capital and foreign expertise in the recent past. FIFA President, Sep Blatter referred to India as the ‘Sleeping Giant’. He of course was referring to India’s untapped potential with respect to the development of the sport in the country.
The term Sleeping giant, however, is better suited to describe the apathy, silence and ignorance of the football fraternity here in India to an issue that is probably the deadliest hindrance to the growth of the sport in India, AGE CHEATING. I have never come across a single article bemoaning over the issue in any of the sports websites or newspapers. More importantly, no prolific figure of the sport in India has voiced his opinion about the issue. One would argue that to be the case as these prolific figures might themselves be age cheats.
The past one and a half years of my life have been a real eye opener. Having been part of a professional youth setup, I was made to look outside the cushioned bubble I lived in. Having been to state trials earlier, I was aware of such unethical practices being carried out by players but the extent and prevalence of age cheating was only made aware to me during my short stint as a youth player. I was ready to quit the team after the first season itself as these practices were just not in cognizance with my conscience.
Here I was, waking up at five every morning to go and train with players who, with the exception of a few, were all age cheats. It was appalling to see players in their mid twenties posing as 17 year olds and to see 18/19 year olds changing their date of birth, to, in their words, to having been born in the year ‘two thousand zero’. Words cannot describe how gratifying it is to have been officially released from a system that is characterized by such lies.
My team mates were all extremely gifted, hard working and professional, but, they were also liars. They are not to be blamed though. More often than not, coaches and state associations pressurize the players to fudge their age just so they can achieve short term results. These institutions and institutional coaches have been cursed with short sightedness. Their inability to look well and beyond the near future casts a dim shadow over the future of the players itself. We would be fools to think that this is a practice native just to the state of Karnataka.
The evil transcends state boundaries and even finds it’s well deserved place in the national stage too. The under 19 I-league is merely a façade, much more like an open age tournament. The legitimate youth players would benefit playing against older men, they would only reap these benefits if people differentiated between the genuine and the fake.
The recently shut AIFF Regional Academy in Bangalore was an under 14 academy on paper, so were the boys. Remember, just on paper! Most of the boys were well over 14. I had the humbling privilege to play with a cadet of this academy, who goes to a degree college and is just fourteen! Bangalore’s very own Doogie Hoswer, eh?
It’s not merely youth academies of local clubs, state teams or the regional academies that are privy to this fallacious practice. Abhilash, a friend of mine attended the IMG Soccer Academy located at Bradenton, Florida where he crossed paths with the then Indian under-sixteen team in 2012. The lies resonated even over there! One of the officials present at Bradenton even asked Abhilash to change his age just so he could train with the Indian team.
The ease at which one can attain a fake birth certificate is to be blamed for all the mess. It’s disheartening to see that even the sporting world cannot break free from the cuffs of corruption. I refer to it as cuffs, as it is a vicious circle, one that is particularly hard to break free from. Most players come from poor families, without legitimate opportunities to be educated; football is the lifeguard that could save them from the perils of poverty. Having come across senior footballers fudge their age, the younger ones are tempted to seem younger by a year or five. These young lads will one day turn professional and the next generation will follow suit.
However, there are a few solutions to this issue.
The wonderful people over at Bengaluru Football Club have come up with the most effective one. The club has set in place academies for age groups starting as young as under 9s. This not only aids in breeding players from a young age, it also adds as an official documentation of the players’ ages, thus, eliminating the possibility of the players fudging their age at a later date. Having said that, BFC is too small a club to be considered a breakthrough catalyst as its geographical reach is very limited. We need such systems in place across the country for us to see an improvement in the next decade or two.
The I-league season ahead promises to be a very exciting one, with the fresh influx of youth from various academies throughout the country. The Bengaluru fanatics are eager to watch BFC’s latest signing, Udanta Singh, merely eighteen years of age, terrorize defenders with his pace and of course, dazzle the fans with his youth.
The player is now studying for a Degree in Law and Management at a top University in Bangalore. He has committed that once done with his education and making a mark on the sporting world an administrator he is going to take the problem head on and do his best to bring it to an end.
We are tackling the issue aggressively and the composition of squads in our club’s youth program over the last 2 years has transformed to accommodate players who are as old as their birth certificate states they are. Rather drop points than cheat!