Thursday, October 17, 2013

Age at U-17 Level and Mystery Statistics....

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.

**To learn more about Nigerian soccer statistics checkout CHUKASTATS at books.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Nigeria with a Foot in Brazil After 2-1 win in Addis.....

Nigeria’s 2-1 win over Ethiopia in Addis Ababa  provides Nigeria an advantaged position on the road to Brazil 2014. However, it took several twists and turns to create a riveting story all on its own. In the end, the 2-1 win was barely deserved but it demonstrated the spirit of an African champion. Below, I provide my review of the game.

Background: The game was on a soggy field and late afternoon heat in a high altitude environment that created difficult conditions particularly for Nigeria. But even Ethiopians took a water break after just 30 minutes. Difficult circumstances, indeed.

The Game and Tactical Issues: Nigeria attempted to slow the pace of the game early mindful of the altitude and the heat. On the other hand, Ethiopia pressured the ball with the sole purpose of disallowing Nigeria any space with the ball and also upping the tempo of the game mindful of their advantage under the climatic conditions. Of course, the focus of this tactic was Nigeria’s midfield maestro Mikel Obi who suffered several harsh challenges in the middle. Nigeria was second best as the tactical battle ranged early in the game as Ethiopia forced Nigeria into numerous passing errors as Nigeria sought  unsuccessfully to maintain possession. More troubling to Nigeria as well was the condition of the field, which appeared heavy and slippery. Nigeria was lucky to survive the opening half with a 0-0 tie, particularly after a controversial decision when the referee did not give a goal as the ball arguably crossed the line before Oboabona scurried it to safety. 

The second half appeared to be  a re-run of the opening half with the Nigerian technical bench appearing to wait until midway before making its substitutions in order to counter the altitude. This made sense as the starting eleven was well rested at the half and substituting very early would have been counter productive. But Nigeria was forced to put its plan into play early after the Camerounian referee gave a controversial goal in the 56th minute ruling that a high ball crossed the line before Enyeama caught the ball. Nigeria had to make two quick substitutions to energize the team for a final run to secure at least a draw. This changed the game as Ethiopia switched to relying on a counter hoping to protect its lead. But the refereeing controversy was not over. The referee ignored a clear foul on Musa inside the box as Musa appeared headed for goal in the 76th minute. Then on the penalty that won the game for Nigeria, the rule is clear – the defender should have certainly been sent off. Instead, the referee produced a caution.

Rating Nigerian players (1-5 scale): 
Enyeama 4 – He produced great goalkeeping on the day except for the error of misjudging a high ball that led to  Ethiopia’s goal. He produced confidence and several saves when tested. 
Ambrose Efe 2 – Efe made several poor decisions with passes and was AWOL on several occasions particularly in the first half. 
Egwuekwe 3 – He was assured defensively at times with his clearances but had wayward passes out of defense.  Additionally,  he makes errors that make you wonder with poor contact on a few headers. 
Oboabona 5 – Outstanding all day. He has not played much for his club but did not miss a beat for Nigeria. He scurried a ball to safety on the line in the opening half. Then he dispossessed Sahdin Said deep in Nigeria’s box in the second half.
Echiejile 3 – Echiejile was anonymous in the game for long stretches and put up an average day in the office. 
Onazi  3.5 – He was energetic as always but was already panting after just five minutes because of the conditions. Made wayward passes at times. 
Mikel Obi 3.5 – This was not his usual day. Ethiopians made sure he felt the tackles and he was repeatedly caught in possession. Made one sublime pass that set Musa free on goal in the second half. 
Oduamadi 2 – Largely anonymous and clumsily missed a first half chance when a cross came his way in the opening half. 
Ahmed Musa 3.5 – Musa was dangerous on the day as is usual with his speed. He was denied a goal when he slammed a chance against the post and was then denied a penalty after finding his way past defenders. 
Emenike 4 – Matched a Nigerian record with at least a goal in five consecutive games. He was constantly dangerous and took the first goal well with a vicious shot from outside the box and took the penalty well after being fouled on way to goal. However, he appeared lost on a few occasions early in the second half. 
Moses 2.5 – Moses was also a victim of some harsh tackles and appeared to avoid physical challenges. He provided some good moments but failed to take a one-and-one opportunity in the second half before he was replaced. 
Igiebor 3 – Igiebor added energy to the team when he joined the fray and was defensively notable as a midfielder. 
Ideye 2.5 – Ideye also brought energy to the team but not much else as he spent time helping shore the middle. 
Technical Team 4 – The team had the players playing at a slower pace than usual. This was an excellent move considering the conditions. Then they made substitutions at the right moment to counter the altitude and bring more energy into the team. Importantly, moving a tired but important player like Mikel Obi up while using more energetic players in the middle late not only shored up the middle but left on the field a player who has the most ability to create for others.

Looking Forward: Of course, Nigeria is now in the driver’s seat on all accounts. Ethiopia must come out to play in Nigeria in November. Even a 1-0 win in Nigeria for Ethiopia will not be good enough and they must attack in hostile territory. 

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Ethiopia and Last Barrier on Road to Brazil

Addis Ababa -- There are far more thorns on the road to the World Cup in Brazil than many Nigerians may think. On paper, Nigeria should overcome Ethiopia. After all, Nigeria has higher profile players,  better talents, and pedigree. However, let the truth be told -- the game in Addis Ababa on October 13 will be more challenging than most Nigerians expect.  We believe each factor below will help decide the game as no one factor ever decides a soccer game. Here we go:

1. The Altitude -- There has been much written on the importance of altitude in international games and this is a real advantage for the Ethiopians (2400 meters above sea level). Ordinarily, teams counter an altitude disadvantage by arriving early but this is impossible as Nigerian players are mostly playing overseas and will not be assembled to make it to Addis Ababa in time to overcome the altitude. Thus, Nigeria will employ the alternative strategy of arriving just a  day before the game and leaving right after. However, this will put pressure on Nigeria planning a hitch-free trip because if anything goes wrong with the planned charter flight then Nigeria may be faced with arriving too late for players to have a needed rest before the start of the game.

2. The Opponent -- The reality is Ethiopia has changed in the last two years and has steadily improved as was demonstrated at the Nations Cup except in the odd game against Burkina Faso and was demonstrated in its recent progress in the World Cup qualifiers where it overcame a forfeited game.  Ethiopia has supreme confidence particularly at home and with a large home crowd egging them on. However, Nigeria is also much improved and is currently African champion team and is demonstratively better than the Ethiopians.

3. Team Preparation -- Ethiopia would have been in camp for two weeks training under game condition compared to an extremely short preparation time for Nigeria. Ethiopia will have a decided advantage on endurance with its long term training at high altitude whereas Nigeria may end up huffing and puffing particularly if Nigeria has to chase this game early. Ethiopia has the edge on preparation factor but how much of this preparation can compensate for the fact that Nigeria is the team with better players and the tag of African champion?

4. The Game Day Psychology -- Nigeria may unwittingly underrate its opponent and thus stand at a psychological disadvantage. The media prediction of a Nigerian victory and outright celebration by Nigeria after the draw was announced, point to the likelihood that Nigeria may believe that all it has to do is show up and win. If that is the case then expect a big shocker. Fortunately, Nigeria's coach Keshi is a consummate professional who will prepare players adequately and psychologically for this game. This is perhaps, the most important factor -- more important than altitude, game time, and team tactics!

5. Team Tactics -- Nigeria is a ball possession team that has used quick counters as well. Additionally, Nigeria pressures in two thirds of the field during the ball recovery phase of the game. However, because of the fact that the game is played mid afternoon and in high altitude, Nigeria may have to pace itself, reduce designated ball pressure areas, and rely more on counters than is usual. Ethiopia, on the other hand, would look to win this game and play for a draw in Nigeria. Thus, Ethiopia which also relies on ball possession with crosses into Saladin, is more likely to take the initiative in much of this game especially in the second half. Alternatively, Ethiopia may choose to control the middle and rely on crosses and set pieces without unduly exposing their area to Nigeria's quick counters. However, trying to control the middle against Nigeria will be difficult particularly with Onazi and Mikel Obi holding fort in the middle.

6.  History -- The teams have met 10 times with Nigeria winning six and losing three. However, and more importantly, only one of those Nigerian wins came in Addis Ababa! Even then, that victory came in an exhibition game marking the Silver Jubilee of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) in 1983. In Addis Ababa, Ethiopia has reigned over Nigeria by winning three of five games, including a 4-1 hiding in an international friendly on May 28 in 1992.

In Addis Ababa                                                             In Nigeria

May 4, 1968 - Ethiopia 1 Nigeria 0                   April 20, 1968 - Nigeria 3 Ethiopia 1
April 29, 1983 - Ethiopia 0 Nigeria 1                July 24, 1993 - Nigeria 6 Ethiopia 0 (ANCQ)
May 28, 1992 - Ethiopia 4 Nigeria 1                 March 27, 2011 - Nigeria 4 Ethiopia 0 (ANCQ)
April 11, 1993 - Ethiopia 1 Nigeria 0  (ANCQ)          
June 5, 2011 - Ethiopia 2 Nigeria 2 (ANCQ)

Neutral Venue

Benghazi, LIBYA - March 7, 1982 - Nigeria 3 Ethiopia 0 (ANC)
Rustenberg, S/AFRICA - Jan 29, 2013 - Nigeria 2 Ethiopia 0 (ANC)

What Should We Really Expect?

Ethiopia has held the upper hand in Addis and Nigeria is currently the best team in Africa. What gives? I would not be surprised that this is a tight game that ends in a tie, giving Nigeria the advantage in qualifying for the World Cup finals. However, a tie will not come easily. Ethiopia will fight as the only chance it has for reaching the World Cup finals must depend on its ability to win this game in Addis Ababa and then drawing in Nigeria. The margin may not matter much, all that may matter is a result that provides Nigeria with an advantage going into the second leg.

**To learn more about Nigerian soccer statistics checkout CHUKASTATS at books.**