Sunday, November 8, 2015

Nigeria's U17: Asking the Brain to Think….

Nigeria has dominated the FIFA U17 World Cup but has done very little in the senior World Cup that many, both Nigerians and non-Nigerians, have raised serious questions. Most of these questions revolve around the allegation that Nigeria uses over-age players to win the competition. In this piece, we address these allegations in various ways. To do this in any meaningful way, we begin by describing Nigeria's success under two periods, the pre-MRI and the post-MRI; then we review the MRI test; explain Nigeria's dominance at U17 level; analyze the hypothesized link between U17 performance and World Cup dominance at the highest level; and close by assessing how Nigeria should address some issues.

The Past (Pre-MRI Era)
For us, the past covers the pre-Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) era. There is little doubt that Nigeria took advantage of lax control in the area of birth certifications to field over age players at the U17 levels during this period. To be sure, it was not just Nigeria. Several countries including the likes of Brazil, Syria, Iraq, Mexico, Ghana, Ecuador, and Guinea were all involved in using over age players during this period. Allegations and investigations which were often based on submission of conflicting birth dates and the like led to suspensions, at varying times, of countries like Nigeria and Mexico as well as others. 

The MRI Test
The frequency of allegations of age cheating led FIFA to commission tests on ways to curb the problem because reliance on birth certificates was no longer effective. MRI on the wrist was recommended but it needed to be tested. There are other reliable tests such as ultrasonography on the wrist. The MRI test team, led by Chairman of FIFA's Medical and Research Centre (F-MARC), Jiri Dvorak, conducted several tests and ensured that it cut across ethnic differences by conducting pilot studies of players in Tanzania, Brazil, Canada, Thailand, and Belgium. The study involved MRIs on the wrist to help determine Skeletal Age (SA). Results required raters to blindly (i.e. without knowledge of player name, age, or country) determine probable age from results of the MRI. This helped establish six grades that ranged from I (completely unfused wrist bone or distal radius) to VI (full fusion of the wrist bone) and high probability that the player is over the age of 17. However, note that there are errors associated with the test results. See Table 1 (from Dvorak's study) published in the British Journal for Sports Medicine. It shows that a player between ages 18 and 19 years may pass the test by having an unfused wrist bone but the probability of doing so lessens as the true age of the player increases. Conversely, a player between the ages of 16 and 17 may also fail the test but the probability of this is less than 1%. However, because FIFA U17 competition allows grades I-V fusion it also means that more than 80% of those 18-19 years pass the test! That is a huge number but note that there is a risk in using players who are MRI grade V because they may transition to grade VI between test date during qualifiers and tests at tournament time and thus are ineligible. As many as 58% of 18-19 year olds fall under grade V. Notwithstanding, because of eligible birthdate for FIFA's U17 competition, those slightly over 17 years old at the start of the competition are deemed eligible by FIFA to participate in U17 World Cup. In essence, the "U17 World Cup" is not truly a tournament for players below the age of 17.

In any case, FIFA's MRI scans at U17 World Cups of 2003 and 2005 revealed that as many as 35% of players in those competitions were over the age limit. In essence, one of every 3 players in those competitions was over age. That is a staggering number that is not limited to whether such a player was from Africa or Europe or Asia, or wherever. Fortunately, the introduction of MRI tests has actually reduced the number of players who fail the test which means that there is a high probability of less age cheating because of the tests. Comparative results between FIFA's U17 of 2003 and 2005 obtained from Dvorak's tests confirm this. While 35% of participants were grade VI in 2003, in 2005 the number for grade VI fell to 18%.

The Present (MRI Era)
The use of MRI test was fully employed from 2009 but through random tests. Since then, these tests have not only been done at the national level but at continental and FIFA levels as well. For instance, just two years ago, CAF tests eliminated three players each from Nigeria, Ivory Coast, and Congo Brazzaville from participation at the 2013 U17 African Championship in Morocco. Players failing such a test at the place of competition cannot be replaced by their team. The results have been encouraging. MRI tests has discouraged participation of players who are unlikely to pass the test. The effect for Nigeria is that it has forced the country to formally identify and groom players from a younger age in U13 and U15 teams. This gives the Federation confidence that there exists a capable pool of players, within the needed age limit, from which it can select a U17 team.

Explaining Why Nigeria Continues to do Well at U17 Level
The question then is why is there persistence in allegations of age cheating leveled against Nigeria? It appears that this results from two major reasons. (1) That footballer falsification of age-related documentation is still high in Nigeria, and (2) That it seems implausible that Nigeria can dominate the world at U17 level but is below average at the senior level.

However, the fact that age-falsification is rampant in Nigeria does not automatically mean that it is rampant in the U17 team. There are reasons why one does not necessarily lead to the other. First, the age-falsification that goes on is often related to the need to present a young age in order to earn a contract in Europe. Often, European clubs would rely on birth certifications and paper-based records and not the MRI test. Thus, the environment is similar to what occurred in the U17 World Cups prior to the MRI era. Such an environment encourages age falsification. However, it is more difficult to do so in U17 World Cup today where independent scientific verification is possible. Thus, it is unlikely that such rampancy occurs for Nigeria at the U17 World Cup level. 

However, a significant number of Nigerian fans believe that it does not make sense that Nigeria dominates at U17 level but is lame at other levels. Thus, this leads to the belief that such domination must be based on the use of over the age limit players. But is that really logical? I would say the answer is NO and here are reasons why:

1. At the youth level, the number of hours playing football is a huge plus. Here, I urge you to read one or both of the following books -- Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers and Anders Ericsson's The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance. In Nigeria, youth life is hardly as regimented or regulated as in several Western countries. Nigerian youths play football any where and at any time for several hours a day unsupervised and, thus, accumulates needed hours of practice and expertise. In several Western countries, parents have to often take their children to practice for few hours and in perhaps 2-3 days a week. Compare those few hours of practice to hours of practice in Nigeria. Of course, hours spent in the academies in Western countries may mirror the hours in Nigeria but how many players are in academies from which U17 players will be selected? Thus, on hours alone, there should be no surprise that youth players in Nigeria would be at a prime performance level.

2. The number of hours that a team plays together is also a huge plus at all levels of football. Furthermore, several countries do not prioritize national youth football teams and thus, players spend more time at their club academies than in national youth team camps. In Nigeria, however, the opposite is often the case, the national youth team is in camp for several months! Importantly, youth football is a priority that generates a huge interest and following rarely achieved in most non-African countries.

Link Between U17 and the FIFA World Cup
While, the two conditions above make it easier to understand the high level of performance by Nigeria at the U17 level, it remains important to address other issues projected erroneously and mindlessly repeated by the Nigerian press. I address them below:

1. "The reason why Nigerian stars at U17 level do not develop at the Super Eagles level is because they were over age when playing at U17 level" --- This is false and is not based on any factual information or compelling analysis. I examined all players declared the best player at previous FIFA U17 World Cups and also examined their post-tournament careers (see Table 2). Five of 13 such players (not counting 2011 and 2013 winners since their career just commenced) have had reasonable careers. The other 8 had poor post-tournament careers (rated Average to Outstanding). The worst of them was the non-Nigerian -- James Will of Scotland -- named MVP back in 1989 but who made no appearances for Arsenal or Sheffield United and ended up playing only 8 times for low-level clubs such as Dumfermline and Turriff until 2008. There was also Spain's Sergio Santamaria who made only 6 appearances for Barcelona A team and languished in the B and C team until 2011.

The reality is that star players flaming out at the senior level is not and should not be surprising. Biological changes in growth from 17 to 20 years old and over may affect performance in many ways. Furthermore, in the case of Nigeria, players going to obscure European clubs may push their career in a downward trajectory and in certain cases a player choosing to be largely club less while waiting for a big European contract has the same effect. In fact, one may argue that a player who is over 20 and has been a successful performer before being illegally used at U17 level is more likely to perform well post-tournament because he will experience less dramatic biological changes that would stunt his performance.

2. "The reason Nigeria's success at U17 level has not translated to success at the senior level is because Nigeria uses over age players at U17 level" --- This linear expectation that a country performing well (win) at the U17 level will also do the same at the senior level, is largely unsupported by data. There is far more correlation between performance at the older youth levels  (e.g. U20 and U23) with the senior World Cup than at the U17 and the World Cup. Table 3 shows that the dominant World Cup teams have only won four U17 World Cups. This includes Brazil that has used over age players at the U17 level prior to MRI testing. After the MRI tests began, Brazil has failed to win just yet. The rest -- Nigeria, old Soviet Union, Saudi Arabia, Ghana, Mexico, and Switzerland -- have not done much at the senior World Cup level. Table 3 shows that most teams that won the U17 World Cup have not gone beyond the second round (a feat also achieved by Nigeria) of the next two senior World Cups when most of those U17 are anticipated to be actively playing. The only exception is Brazil and even then the quarter final World Cup positions are mediocre for Brazil.

It is difficult to explain why a certain group of countries has continued to dominate the senior World Cup. However, one thing is common among those countries and that is World Cup winners often base an estimated 70-100% of their winning squad on players who are based at home. The only exception were the winning squads of 1994, 1998, and 2002. Those three squads, however, had close to 50% of their squad drawn from home. All other World Cups have squads crafted from players drawn from their home league. Why may this be important? It means that many of those players play for a few select clubs and have trained together. That should never be underestimated particularly in a world where national teams only train together a few days before important games.

Issues that Nigeria Should Think About and Seek Solutions
Here the focus should be on how to build a strong senior national team and going beyond domination of global U17 football. There are no easy answers as we have already noted above with our analysis. There are a few things that should be apparent, however. One is that the idea of keeping a U17 team together is a nonstarter noting inevitable biological changes as players mature and also noting that other players who may not have been good at U17 will invariably emerge. Two, success at all levels depend on long term training together. It has brought success at U17 level but the lack of such opportunity at senior level has also led to failures. This cannot be easily addressed because of economic considerations of world football, which forces football labor migration from poor financial compensation locations like Nigeria to high centers of financial compensation. This migration of leads to talent fragmentalization for nations like Nigeria.