It is a common theme for the older generation to pretend they are younger than they really are. Everyone does it and it turns out footballers are no exception. Except some genuinely don’t know. Be it a missing birth certificate or a pure made up lie, these lot are almost certainly older than they say.
Obafemi Martins, 27 – Oba burst onto the scene at Inter Milan, supposedly as an 18-year old, proving to be one of the hottest properties in the game. However, a dispute took place between Martins and the Nigerian Football Association who have his date of birth down as 1978 instead of 1984. This led to complications during his move to Newcastle, who were unsure whether they were signing a young prodigy or someone at the height of his powers. Given his performances for Birmingham last season, I’d probably say it was the latter.
Nwankwo Kanu, 35 – If Kanu really is 35, then some statistics really don’t add up. The Nigerian made his debut in 1991, which would have made him 15, an astonishing feat given how many goals he scored that year. Either way, Nwankwo is still plugging away for Portsmouth in the Championship and doesn’t do too badly for a man who should be on his zimmerframe.
Yakubu, 29 – Rediscovered his form this season despite Blackburn struggling so badly and at 29 might have a few years left at the top yet. However no-one believes this to be a true figure, indeed former manager David Moyes caused outrage in Nigeria when joking about that number back in 2008. The Everton manager said “He’s only 25, albeit a Nigerian 25, and so if that is his age he’s still got a good few years ahead of him.” Tongue in cheek maybe, but Moysey has a fair old point.
Taribo West, 37 – The popular defender may have retired now, but he played on till the ripe old age of 36. However sources in Nigeria suggest this may not be the case and that Taribo could in fact be 50 plus. Although this isn’t proven, it is astonishing to think someone of this age could play at the highest level, though this doesn’t give him an excuse for the bizarre pigtails he once sported.
Jay Jay Okocha, 38 – So good they named him twice. Another retired superstar, Jay Jay lit up the Premiership during his time here, especially that spell at Bolton. However, in a similar fashion to Kanu, if Jay Jay had been telling the truth, the midfield maestro would have been ripping up the German Leagues as a young teenager. It is strongly suspected he was even 42 when playing for Bolton, which would be some feat considering the miracles he performed there.
You may have noticed all these players are Nigerian, indeed this is a common problem the national team faces. After an embarrassing African Cup of Nations tournament in 2010, a discussion was held surrounding the age problem of Nigerian players. A former Nigerian manager said: “What happened in Angola is a confirmation of what has been happening in the past where most of our players falsified their age during competition. Most of the players are beyond the age they professed and this made it impossible for them to withstand the pace of teams like Zambia and Benin.”
Clearly the problem is no secret in their home country and players are beginning to face criticism for lying about such figures. Ken Anugweje, a former national team doctor and board member of the Nigerian Football Federation claimed “Our boys are old, we are paying the price for age cheating.” Other evidence backs up these claims, in fact Fifa banned Nigeria from all international fixtures for two years after finding that the birth dates of three of their players in the 1988 Olympics were different from ones used by the same players in previous tournaments. Nigeria have performed superbly at Youth World Cups, winning one in 1987 and excelled in 2001 as well, success that can perhaps be attributed to the players being older than they are, offering them an advantage over younger opponents.
Document control is difficult in Nigeria, legislation can be forged, passports rewritten or birth certificates never produced at all if you were born outside the capital Lagos. It has turned into a serious concern for Nigerian football, as they battle to protect their reputation as one of Africa’s strongest footballing nations. All I can say is, Chelsea should look into Mikel’s age. It might explain why he can’t move out of the centre circle during a match…