In a few days, India will host its first-ever global football tournament, the 2017 Fifa Under-17 World Cup. The tournament will witness 24 countries vying for the biggest trophy in youth football. As the host, India has directly entered this event—its maiden appearance in a football world cup—with other teams earning a place through their respective continental qualifiers.

Hosting a global youth football event appears to be an apt time to reflect on India’s attitude towards youth football. As mentioned in a previous article that discussed the Indian U-17 team’s preparations for the World Cup, youth football in India has perpetually been stuck in the planning stages and the absence of a structured youth system means that players are not identified before the age of 13, almost 10 years behind the standard in world football.

This hampers football’s growth in two ways. Firstly, it does not allow footballers to be groomed from childhood. India isn’t full of hidden talent just waiting to be found; kids need to be developed in the right manner from a much earlier age. In the top football-playing nations, children develop a youth profile of over 100 competitive matches even before the age of seven.

Secondly, this allows room for age cheating, which is such an alarming issue in India that it is almost poetic irony for the country to debut with the U-17 World Cup—a competition whose reputation has been tarnished across three decades by allegations of age fraud.

In that sense, the U-17 event coming to India feels like the mothership visiting its spiritual home.

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Age fraud is one of the biggest hindrances to the growth of Indian football. It is incredibly widespread and is even more disturbing in reality than the severity with which it is generally portrayed publicly.

“Over 95% of professional footballers in India have incorrect date of births," estimates an experienced youth coach, who has dealt with both Indian clubs and national teams. “Most of the players who have played for India’s age group national teams have misrepresented their ages." He says this is partly because coaches hunt for players who are older and do not possess age proof documents, and partly because some players genuinely do not know their real age.

In India, you are required to register a child’s birth within 21 days of delivery, or pay a fee to extend this deadline to a year. However, you can register it at a later age as well by obtaining an “order from the area magistrate", which leaves room for corruption. Even players in possession of their original birth certificates can take the latter route and have new ones made, and hope that the original isn’t ever found to expose them. Thus, these documents, though fake, are “real" and there is often no incriminating evidence to catch age cheats.

“It is a difficult problem to eradicate completely," admits Kishore Taid, COO of the All India Football Federation (AIFF), “unless coaches and management take a stand against it at the entry levels." The age verification procedure mandated by the AIFF requires teams to submit the original birth certificate (obtained within a year of birth) or the school-leaving certificate of a player. Only in the absence of both of these certificates is a player or the member association required to submit the results of a medical test, though Taid says even medical tests are just an estimate. “Biological age of a player (age measured through these tests) could be different from the chronological age (the actual age) and could even be the same for, say, a 14-year-old and a 16-year-old."

In 2011, Abhilash Eranna, aged 17, was training at the IMG Soccer Academy in Florida. At the same time, 16 of India’s best U-16 boys had been sponsored by AIFF’s marketing partners IMG-Reliance for a nine-month stint in the academy. “Seeing that an Indian team was there, I had asked the team’s coach if I could train with them," Eranna recalls. He went on to train with the team for a few days and also made several friends from the squad.

“Only two boys were actually under 16," he reveals from his private conversations with these players. “In one of my chats with the coach, he had also indicated that if I can get my passport changed, he might be able to help me join the squad."

One player from this U-16 team in Florida confesses that his academic age today (21)—also the one on his passport—is actually two years younger than his real age (23). “Most players mention their date of births to be much later than their actual date," he says. “This isn’t (valid for) only the team in Florida but across state teams and clubs too."

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A mafia-like code of silence is the reason age cheating remains difficult to weed out. Such a sport-wide code, for instance, was the reason cycling got away with large-scale doping for a decade. Everybody knew it was happening but nobody dared to speak out, until two brave women decided to cross the line and brought the sport to its knees.

In an undeveloped, fragmented and disorganized industry like football in India, relationships matter the most. Professionals refuse to make statements on the record for fear of losing their jobs.

Off the record, though? They sing.

The name of a high-ranking official in the most influential organization in Indian football comes up in almost every conversation. So does the name of a renowned Kolkata coach, who has served in major roles in the city’s biggest clubs but is notorious for encouraging players to alter their ages.

Officials right from the top to the bottom of football’s pyramid have been complicit in these unethical practices, even if their contribution is to knowingly look the other way.

“The sleeping giant," an ex-footballer says of Fifa’s description of India, “best describes the apathy, silence and ignorance of the football fraternity towards the issue of age cheating."

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The issue of age fraud dwarfs problems such as lack of infrastructure and shortage of money in football because it comes at the expense of genuine talent and completely halts long-term progress.

Since age cheats are older and thus physically more mature (even a 12-month gap makes a big difference at a young age), they have an unfair advantage and appear deceivingly better than the honest players in their adopted age group. It is possible that they may not have stood out in their real age group. Later in their careers, age cheats often drop off the radar earlier than expected since they’re unable to deliver on their false early promise and simply aren’t up to the mark at the senior level.

Honest players, on the other hand, who were overlooked in favour of age cheats, struggle to get another look-in, with chances few and far between in India, unless they too go down an unethical route. One of India’s great young hopes today was first rejected at the U-16 stage before he returned a few years later, “younger" than before, says a senior coach. He is making his mark at the senior level.

To compound the problem, age cheats gradually become better players too since they’re inside the system for longer and have thus been exposed to better training. Serial offenders even take multiple cracks at an age group across several years. Unless the player has been selected, the name and date of birth do not enter into any official database. Two years ago, AIFF made it mandatory for all the players participating in its tournaments to be registered in a central online database.

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In 2012, the AIFF selected 120 probables in the U-14 and U-16 age groups to form the first batch of its upcoming academies. A remarkable 87 of these boys (72%) were found to be over-age, The Times of India reported, and did not fit in either of the two age brackets. 

Among those were the first set of probables to form India’s national team at the upcoming World Cup. It wasn’t the only time India’s preparation was hampered by age cheating: when the NorthEast XI was invited to play an exhibition game in 2016 against the U-17 national team, it fielded eight over-age players and left Nicolai Adam, the national team coach at the time, fuming.

Earlier this year, Mohun Bagan had been banned from playing in the final round of the U-18 I-League for fielding a player who was three years over the limit in the competition’s zonal round. The player’s correct date of birth was already listed in the Sports Authority of India (SAI) database, and the AIFF had been tipped off. A month prior to that, Bengaluru-based Ozone FC reportedly produced a high court stay order to avoid expulsion and play in the final of the U-16 league after birth certificates of five of its players could not be verified—again, only after the federation had been tipped off.

“Everyone in this industry has come to accept this plus-two rule—that an U-17 competition, for instance, is an U-19 event," laments coach Pradyum Reddy, who is renowned for scouting and developing young players at clubs such as Bengaluru FC and Shillong Lajong FC. “Everyone in the final round of the U-18 I-League in Kolkata (played in April and May this year) admitted that, for all intents and purposes, it was a U-20 tournament with a few over-age players."

Anuj Gupta, co-founder of Delhi second-division club Sudeva Moonlight FC, says his younger teams even prepare for this. “We make our U-15s face our U-18s to help build them up for tournaments and future. This also helps them to get better competition and become stronger from a very early age."

Scepticism is rampant in the industry. Coaches believe their rivals are cheating, which then may become an excuse for them to cheat as well. Scouts and agents, who usually know a player’s real age, align their work as per industry norms. Reddy shows me a response he had received after asking an older player from Manipur, a state infamous for its age cheating culture, to recommend players who were born in either 1999 or 2001. It reads: “Hi Coach. I have two boys who’s (sic) born in 1996 but their academic age is 1999 and another is 2001 so it’ll be ok?" Eight of the 21 players in India’s final squad for the U-17 World Cup are from Manipur.

Like players, honest coaches get left behind as well. Only a truly exceptional young team can produce results against a team full of older players. Bhaichung Bhutia Football Schools (BBFS) has a reputation in the industry for being among the least-infected institutions. “We took a safety-first approach," says Stevie Grieve, the Scottish coach who was head of coach education (2013-16) for BBFS. “We had rejected players who had looked even remotely suspicious of being over-age." In the final round of this year’s U-18 I-League, BBFS lost two of their three matches 0-9 and 2-8. Was this the cost of honesty?

“Blame for age cheating cannot be pinpointed to one aspect," says 22-year-old Vignesh Avarekad, who was released from a top-division club's U-19 team for not performing well enough when compared to the other players, who he says were mostly above the age limit. Avarekad now pursues a career in law. “Our social structures contribute to this practice."

“There is a certain amount of social-economic pressure," Reddy says, “that sways the moral compass of many people in Indian football." While undeserving players secure their livelihood through football, India continues to lose hundreds of thousands of potentially excellent footballers.

A former employee at a renowned academy reveals that it had a clear set of guidelines and a go-to address for its players to fabricate age proof documents. A player agent describes how one player, who is actually five years older than his official age, was mistakenly outed by his previous employers; he was announced as a 24-year-old signing on the club’s official website before that webpage was taken down. Another player, possibly a wonder kid years ahead of his time, featured in an U-17 tournament for his school in 2012 and in the U-19 I-League for his club three years later. In a few days, he will represent India in the U-17 World Cup.

A few quirks regarding age fraud might even be amusing if it wasn’t destroying the sport from inside. One coach told me how only half of the squad in the same age group taking a break for board exams is a tell-tale sign that clubs tend to deliberately ignore. Another explains how dates of birth of those committing age fraud have to be kept simple, “like a 7/7/2000", so they could recall it easily if match commissioners ask. Social media profiles have to be wiped out before a certain year; a proud girl’s “elder brother", who became younger overnight, was a source of amusement in some quarters.

“Ironically, some players are now regretting changing their ages," Reddy says, “as they have to play another season of academy football whereas their peers have been offered more lucrative contracts in the Indian Super League (ISL) reserves or even I-League squads."

Age fraud is a complex web, an “epic nexus", one coach says, of coaches, players and officials. By forcing genuine talent to be overlooked, it continues to set Indian football back decades.

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So how can India go about eradicating age fraud? An unequivocal response to this is to start early, which goes hand-in-hand with player development. Former AIFF technical director Scott O’Donnell continually stressed on the importance of creating a database of footballers right from a young age. “At the age of six," he would say, “a kid can’t cheat."

“There is no substitute for starting with coaching databases in the ‘baby leagues’ from ages of four and five," Reddy agrees. “It needs some like-minded people to start these pilot projects in a few locations, and we will be on the road to having a more transparent system."

Uruguay has a population of less than 3.5 million, nearly four times less than that of Mumbai, yet it has won two World Cup titles, two Olympic golds and a record 15 Copa America titles. The secret to the nation’s success is Baby Futbol, an extensive network of leagues that sees around 60,000 children between ages six and 13 compete each weekend. For this, Uruguay even has a separate federation. Other South American nations too have similar systems in place.

Rather than obsess over importing Dutch or Spanish philosophies of nurturing local football, India needs to find its own model of development; a model that takes into account the vastness and diversity of a country that one Fifa delegate insisted should be treated like a continent. A lack of infrastructure is hardly an excuse; countries worse-off continue to succeed. An absence of a football culture isn’t one either; it’ll develop over decades and you’ll find enough kids today ready to take up the sport.

In India, there is a void till the age of 13, and league football, which isn’t round-the-year either, only begins from the U-15 level, though a U-13 league is set to kick off next month. When India was announced as the host of the U-17 World Cup in 2013, only the U-19 (now U-18) age group league existed; the U-15 league came two years later. The inter-school Subroto Cup for U-14s and the inter-state Coca Cola Cup (formerly called the Mir Iqbal Hussain Trophy) for U-15s remain the starting points of India’s youth football.

“There is no consistent model of engagement with (football in India) and that’s a huge part that kids miss out on," Richard Hood, AIFF’s head of youth development, had told ESPN.in. “In Japan, children are probably engaging with the sport for 52 weeks in a year, and the corresponding number in India is not more than three."

There’s also the possibility of baby leagues coming in the near future but that will take a massive cultural shift to succeed because, as youth coach Tom Bryer writes in Football Starts At Home, “parents are in control of their children’s leisure time" and it is the traditionally conservative parents who will need convincing. 

Here, a severe shortage of coaches who are competent and willing to coach children will not help matters. “In schools, we have specialists for pre-school, kindergarten, middle school and higher education," Reddy points out. “Yet, in terms of football coaches, we don’t have many experts for different age groups. Our current coach education does not address this issue and is a long way from doing so."

In the US, one of India’s opponents at the World Cup, the 2007-established Developmental Academy faced a problem of kids playing too many competitive games (100-110 every year) but not being exposed to enough high-quality training sessions—a problem that India would gladly inherit today. 

In Colombia, another opponent at the upcoming event, the privately run “Pony Futbol" U-12s event, which holds year-round televised games and draws crowds of even up to 30,000, forms a pipeline of national team superstars like James Rodriguez and Radamel Falcao. The biggest clubs in Colombia have their own junior teams as well, which stretch down to baby football—Deportivo Cali, for instance, has 25,000 kids through various school affiliations—while the federation largely takes a back seat in youth football matters.

Clubs in India must shoulder a hefty chunk of the responsibility for the mess at the grassroots, which is often a mere buzzword to be used in their boardrooms. Short-termism is rife and result-orientation is high. When top-division clubs would not give enough game time to its youngsters, the AIFF was forced to form an altogether separate team in 2010 to allow these youngsters to compete at the highest level. When this team ran into financial trouble and had to shut shop, a rule was introduced mandating clubs to include at least one U-22 player in their starting XIs; a rule that coaches circumvented through embarrassingly early substitutions.

It is imperative for clubs to invest in younger players and show patience for India to succeed in the long run. But even well-intentioned clubs are discouraged by an unstable ecosystem in which clubs fold up every year and there’s a constant uncertainty over the future of the national league.

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How is age cheating tackled at the global stage? Fifa has made progress on this front. In 2009, Fifa introduced Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) of the left wrist as a method to identify age cheats; a method which checks growth of the bone to identify whether a player is older than 17 years. While it is considered a more reliable method than the previous ones (which were passport checks and X-ray tests), the accuracy of the latest procedure has not gone unchallenged

Experts say there is simply too much deviation and uncertainty for Fifa to call its results “more than 99% accurate". They say there’s no significant correlation between bone growth and age and that the results of a sample of only 496 kids (on the basis of which Fifa reached its conclusions) do not adequately factor in environmental and cultural factors for these to be applied to individuals.

Additionally, Fifa bases its conclusions on the research of its own medical centre and it also refuses to publish results of MRI scans taken in these tournaments. This does not help in mending the damaged reputation of the U-17 event, which is dominated by Asian and African nations. Nigeria, considered the poster boy of age fraud, has won a record five titles, including the last two editions, which many take as a sign that the event is still not clean. 

Nigeria, incidentally, didn’t qualify for the upcoming event in India. After 26 of its 60 players were found to be over the age limit before the first qualifying round last year, a weakened Nigerian team subsequently lost to minnows Niger.

Accurate or not, MRI scans will remain only the final checks. These are expensive, costing around Rs3,000 per player, and thus cannot be administered at the time of trials but only after selection. This means honest players remain susceptible to being overlooked, unless coaches (who influence young players), officials, administrators and players themselves change their attitudes.

The U-17 World Cup may further popularize football in India and may inspire many kids to take up the sport, but a four-week event cannot be a game-changer. Not with India’s unceasing apathy towards youth football. Even “Mission XI Million", the World Cup’s legacy project which had aimed to reach 11 million children, was found to have large-scale discrepancies in its reported figures, as revealed by a Hindustan Times investigation which called the project a “hogwash".

Every four years, a senior Fifa World Cup will come and go, and experts will discuss in forums and debate on TV on why this country of over 1.3 billion people isn’t taking part in it. And almost every year, the AIFF president will go public with his hopes of India qualifying for the next World Cup. It is a fitting claim too. 

After all, Indian football remains stuck in the age of deceit.

Have you experienced age cheating in football? Or been a proponent of it, who wants to come clean? Write to akarshsharma@gmail.com

Akarsh Sharma is a business manager who spends much of his free time writing and researching on sport. His writing is collated on akarshsharma.com and he tweets @Akarsh_Official

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