“Do you want my football age or my real age?”
A question that apparently is fairly standard in African football, where historically players have often claimed to be younger than they actually are to make themselves more valuable to potential clubs. Not surprising when you consider the motivating factor is an escape from poverty and that forging of official documents is often as easy as getting them through the proper channels. This led to thirty year olds playing in under 20 matches and allegedly grandfathers and grandsons in the same match. Before implementing magnetic resonance scans on players’ wrists FIFA’s own figures estimated that a third of previous Under 17 international tournament players were older than they claimed (when the scans were announced before the 2010 World U17 competition Nigeria suddenly and without any further explanation dropped fifteen players from their original squad). Yes it’s cheating and yes it completely goes against the point of youth football but it doesn’t half lead to some unbelievable claims about famous players’ ages.
The main rumours go as follows:
Nwankwo Kanu is nine years older than he claims.
Jay Jay Okocha is ten years older.
Obifemi Martins is six years older and on signing for Newcastle had three passports with three different years of birth. He told them that the one that made him youngest was the correct one.
The reason John Mensah and Michael Essien keep getting injured is because they’re at least five years older than they claim (this came from the ex-Ghanaian team doctor).
Roger Milla doesn’t know how old he is. He may be older than he thinks (which given that he was 42 at Italia 90 would be quite an achievement).
Taribo West finished playing in his fifties.
All of these are real claims, put forward mainly by Nigerian journalists (who believe that this is the main reason their country, which contains a fifth of Africa’s population, has struggled to dominate at international level). Undoubtedly there’s some truth to these. Evidently there’s also a healthy portion of bullshit. More than anything though if any of those are halfway true you can’t help feeling impressed. When Jay Jay was lighting up the Premier League he was apparently north of forty years old. I thought that Taribo had lost his pace as he neared thirty. Turns out it was because he had just turned fifty. Kanu always looked about ten years older than he was. Now we know why. If anything proves that age is just a number it’s this. Shame of it is that we’ll never know for sure just how old that generation of players where. Which puts us in exactly the same position as Roger Milla.