When Jameshedpur FC’s Gaurav Mukhi scored a goal against Bengaluru FC in the Indian Super League, the Jharkhand lad was hailed as the youngest goalscorer of the tournament at 16.

His performance was not celebrated as has become the norm. Football fans, journalists and other stakeholders involved questioned the claim of the commentators because Mukhi hardly looked the part. A moustache, a stubble and a prior run-in with the authorities had dented any confidence in the Jamshedpur youngster’s age.

A part of Jharkhand’s sub-junior nationals title-winning side in 2015, Mukhi was later named in a report as one of five players suspended by the All India Football Federation for confessing to being overage.

AIFF then announced that it would investigate the matter but the episode has once again raised the question – When it comes to age fraud, how deep is the rot in Indian football?

Selectively forgetful

The Indian football ecosystem’s discussion on age fraud is amnesiac at best. It comes and it goes, interspersed by bouts of love for its youth teams and their results.

But a caveat, it is physically impossible for one body or one federation to check and curb age fraud in a country as large as India’s. As explained below, it is facilitated by educators, enablers, coaches, parents, schools, universities and in the end, a code of silence or ‘Omerta’ within the system, functioning for decades.

Kishore Taid, ex-COO of the AIFF says, “Constant policing is not the solution. It’s more of an ethical dilemma. This is upto the coaches who want to win at the U-14 and U-16 level. In my experience, not in 100% of the cases, but most coaches know the exact age of a youth player they’re dealing with.”

It cropped up when a member of the 2017 under-17 World Cup team was alleged to be over-age in a Reddit post a few days before the showpiece started. Records and older articles showed that he was a part of his school’s U-17 team in 2012 and also played for the U-19 side of his club in 2015. But all talk quickly died down once the tournament started.

Another member of the U-17 team was rejected due to his ‘unnatural height’ at the age of ‘14’ by coach Nicolai Adam, but made his way to the team under Luis Norton de Matos, who succeeded Adam.

And this is probably just the tip of the iceberg.

When the AIFF began its preparation for the 2017 World Cup with long term camps, a whopping 72% of the probables were found to be over-age, according to a report in the Times of India. The state associations had personally cleared these prospects, only for a bone test to expose their ages. According to those in the know, this percentage is ‘on the lower side’ and that up to 90-95% of those in some academies currently are over-age.

One of India’s newest but most successful clubs, Bengaluru FC was last year suspended for age-group cheating in the Under-13 category for one season while Ozone FC and Jammu United were meted out the same punishment for fielding an over-age player in U-15 category.

Sunando Dhar, CEO of I-League, explains the steps they have taken to curb age fraud in the U-13 and U-15 categories. “We have introduced the TW3 [Tanner-WhiteHouse3] test for the two youngest categories. We have a medical team under Dr Vece Paes co-ordinating with on-site personnel to monitor the tests, which every team involved, even in the zonal rounds of the league, have to mandatorily submit. For the U-18, TW3 isn’t reliable, so we still check age proofs. With the help of our player database and these tests, these U13s and the U15s who will become the future U18s, will ensure a cleaner game.”

One of the seminal essays on age fraud is titled ‘THE SLEEPING GIANT’ in which an aggrieved youth player, spoke out about the level of age fraud in Indian football, including the AIFF Elite Academy in Bengaluru, which later shut down. Excerpt from the essay:

Here I was, waking up at five every morning to go and train with players who, with the exception of a few, were all age cheats. It was appalling to see players in their mid twenties posing as 17 year olds and to see 18/19 year olds changing their date of birth, to, in their words, to having been born in the year ‘two thousand zero’. Words cannot describe how gratifying it is to have been officially released from a system that is characterized by such lies.

My team mates were all extremely gifted, hard working and professional, but, they were also liars. They are not to be blamed though. More often than not, coaches and state associations pressurize the players to fudge their age just so they can achieve short term results. These institutions and institutional coaches have been cursed with short sightedness. Their inability to look well and beyond the near future casts a dim shadow over the future of the players itself. We would be fools to think that this is a practice native just to the state of Karnataka.

The evil transcends state boundaries and even finds it’s well deserved place in the national stage too. The under 19 I-league is merely a façade, much more like an open age tournament. The legitimate youth players would benefit playing against older men, they would only reap these benefits if people differentiated between the genuine and the fake.

The recently shut AIFF Regional Academy in Bangalore was an under 14 academy on paper, so were the boys. Remember, just on paper! Most of the boys were well over 14. I had the humbling privilege to play with a cadet of this academy, who goes to a degree college and is just fourteen! Bangalore’s very own Doogie Hoswer, eh?

Why is it done?

Vignesh Averakad, the author of that essay, played under-19 football in 2014, had a team-mate who played for the U-17 World Cup team in 2017.

He says, “I had many talented players in my batch who were of the correct age. But they dropped out too due to the age cheats. I had a fall-back. But for some, this was their bread and butter. I won’t say that the privileged don’t cheat but it’s far less.”

That is the reason for most players who lie about their ages. Coerced into doing so by their parents, coaches or sometimes even agents and touts, these players enter the system to earn a livelihood.

Take the case of the North East, where cases of age fudging are numerous. Those selected are from adverse backgrounds and possibly have no certificates or documents to begin with. Coaches selectively pick and choose those that are likely to have zero documentation and will bolster their squad with the same.

Steve Darby, ex-Mohun Bagan and Mumbai City coach sums it up pretty nicely, “Usually coaches who want ‘to win at all costs’ which boosts ego/salary/reputation. Parents who maybe want their child to get a pro-contract or national team representation. Age fraud also works the other way with many players lying about their age to keep their contracts, saying they are 29 when they may be 33.”

Coaches and club owners are also not averse to making changes in documents in their quest to win trophies. “If the trophies are coming in, the club is perceived to be professional, well-oiled and performing on the pitch. They do it once, the thirst to win is endless,” says a youth coach associated with a top-tier team on condition on anonymity.

Sometimes, the stakes might not be that high. Anirban Ghosh of the Khel Khel Mein Foundation, a NGO which runs age-group teams for girls, was taken aback when he took his U-13 girls to a local tournament.

“We took them because we thought it would be good exposure for them to play against boys. A reputed accredited academy fielded an overage boy who ended up scoring or assisting 8 of the 12 goals against us. I knew the boy for five to six years and lodged a complaint, but at that age, it shouldn’t be about the results. It should be about the intent to develop.”

In many cases, set-ups which start out as clean or relatively cleaner turn to age fraud due to the massive prevalence in elite youth football. Tired of being pummeled at the national stage, many operations turn to age cheats to even the playing field.

Railway sports quota recruitment rules
Railway sports quota recruitment rules

Government jobs

It is a misconception that age fraud mostly happens at the top end of Indian football.

A coach who has been involved with the youth set-up of the national team gives the example of Uttar Pradesh, where players at the national level are few and far in between, but where age cheating is rampant, especially in the government hostels.

Representation, as shown in the screenshot above, at the state level is enough to land a Railways or a SSB job, and it is this bare minimum that most children aim for.

The youth coach continues, “Usually some have two sets of documents. Then when they apply for the government jobs, they reveal their actual age. This results in a case of age fraud reversal, where the correct age comes out after the player’s chances of playing top-tier football have vanished.”

Most recently, with ISL clubs doling out lavish contracts to national youth players and money to their handlers, age fraud has become lucrative. For these clubs, it has become a source of pride to own these “crown jewels”.

A post from the FB page "Stay Your Age. Don't Age Cheat"
A post from the FB page "Stay Your Age. Don't Age Cheat"

How is it done?

The Registration of Births and Deaths Act, 1969, is the primary law governing the registration of births in the country.

The Act empowers the local registrars or those from Nagar Pallikas to correct earlier entries made as well as affords the citizens the opportunity of registering a birth at a later date by an order of a magistrate. These provisions of the Act have often been taken advantage of by cheats.

Thus, the making of an age-related document including the birth certificate is ridiculously easy across the country and identifiers relating to the birth of a person, including the passport, cannot be relied upon. In many cases, a coach will take his players from club to club, vouching for them to avoid detection.

In one particular case, a club from Shillong renowned for its youth team prowess across age groups shut down due to various reasons. The coach, notorious for age-fraud in whisper circles, took all his players to another team and won an age-group I-League there.

According to sources, one of India’s oldest and reputed academies had an address, a location which they handed to the players, in case they wanted to change their age. Another just kept shifting players down the age-groups until the officials found a level where they were good at.

Name manipulation is a method that creeps in for most of these conversations. One of India’s national team defenders in the 2000’s, is said to have changed his name and his religion completely. Touts, who sometimes act as middle men supplying over-age kids to clubs, will change letters in the name to adjust to the club’s needs.

One of the founders of a three-star academy and a renowned purist in Indian footballing circles states that they have rejected players who were offered to them and have been later snapped up by other teams.

“Sometimes coaches will see that there is just enough documentation available and turn a blind eye. After ten years, we have now learnt to call out absurd documentation. We also do background checks with the municipality in cases we’re unsure of. But that is an expensive and lengthy process and not everyone wants to do it.”

During selections and trials for age group national sides, many enablers at the state FA level or long-time experts conveniently round up only the age frauds prior to the trials. It happened with the under-17 World Cup team, when a NorthEast invitational XI that played against Nicolai’s team was found to have eight over-age players. Understandably, the German was furious.

State associations are often in the know, having monitored a child at local or hyper-local level for a period of five or more years. But even those that are perceived to be working hard for the development of the game are silent on this issue in order to ‘not disrupt the momentum’, according to a state official in the know.

There are even cases of players going abroad or disappearing for two years, returning with a younger age. A goalkeeper for an ISL team went to Thailand for a year and promptly came back two years younger.

A post on an Indian Football forum Facebook page
A post on an Indian Football forum Facebook page

The disastrous effects

Bengaluru-based footballer Jonathan Piers recalls an incident when his team, mostly of the right age according to him, came up against a team from Kashmir at the U19 level. “There were wives and kids of the Kashmiri team members cheering on from the sidelines. One team-mate had his nose broken, another had his ankle smashed and needed a walker home.

“We were brutalised,” Piers adds.

Even if a team playing with those of genuine age reaches a tournament final and loses to an overage side, they are likely to be ignored in favour of those that won. Observers and scouts are lax, and are in attendance for the final in order to scout for higher tournaments or academies.

“It does more damage to individuals who are replaced by older kids, or even coaches who are sacked when their team is beaten by a team with older kids in competition,” adds Darby.

Prolific at age-group level due to the physical dominance over those with the correct ages, these players mostly fizzle out in senior football, hurting the progress of the sport in the long run.

Sanctions: Need to be stronger

The risk versus reward conundrum in this case is heavily tilted in favour of the reward simply because sanctions have not gotten stronger and for individuals, feigning willful ignorance when their associated clubs are caught in the act, is enough to get them off the hook.

“Today, you cannot impose heavier penalties on clubs because then there would be no teams left in the national rounds of the age-group leagues,” reveals a youth coach.

The standard penalty for a club found to be guilty of age fraud is a year’s ban from that particular age-group only for that season, a mere slap on the wrist. Bengaluru-based Ozone FC, found guilty of the offence by the AIFF multiple times including once last season, will still play the age-group leagues this season.

Despite calls to ban repeat offenders or individuals enabling the act, the requests have fallen on deaf ears. It is this non-threat of punishment that has seen the U-13, U-15 and U-18 league termed as an unofficial ‘U-16, U-19 and U-23 league’ by some.

The legal sanctions are higher in this case for those who go on to play international football at any level. Section 12 of the Passports Act, 1967, goes on to state that forgery is “punishable with imprisonment for a term which shall not be less than one year but may extend to five years and with fine which shall not be less than ten thousand rupees but which may extend to fifty thousand rupees] or with both.”

Prevention: Notoriously difficult

Efforts to prevent age-fraud are fickle and few and far in between. Most techniques to catch age fraud are not preventive. They are mostly detective to catch perpetrators in the act, months or even years after they started playing. Getting ahead of the system has proven quite the task.

Detection, almost always places the burden of the proof upon the complainants, with the authorities insisting that the clubs with allegations produce certificates or other pieces of evidence pointing to the contrary. “Usually, it’s the losing club that complains, so it comes across as a case of sour grapes,” says a coach.

At the national level, though it may reduce, the problems at the district and levels below continue to fester. The AIFF says it has introduced development officers in 11 states where football is most played, in order to implement its data-base for tournaments beyond its ambit.

The AIFF’s central database, instituted in 2016 to register a player’s correct information and his age proofs, has not proved to be fail-safe. Even if the system has been enabled to catch matching names, some have been known to take the younger brothers’ name or change the parents’ data to throw the mechanism off. Taid agrees, “The system was designed to minimise age fraud. It cannot eliminate the problem completely but hope to curb it.”

Amit Chacko Thomas, of the Roots Academy, Bengaluru, hopes that the TW-3 test will be a game-changer but is wary of the initial effects, “I’m not saying age fraud doesn’t happen but I hope the TW3 test will improve things. Even so, the normalisation for the bone density across various regions in India are different and since many of these tests are tuned to African methods, it will take time for the data to be standardised to regional levels. We will need a base of data for that.”

An abstract from a MRI study which rules it out for female players (Source: NCBI website)
An abstract from a MRI study which rules it out for female players (Source: NCBI website)

Change is required

Even the TW-3 test has been seen to have wild deviations, of up to plus-or-minus three years at higher levels. Most big meets, including the Olympics, have admitted that there is no fool-proof medical test yet.

Due to a lack of calcium or excess of phosphorous for some, their bones develop differently and may not give the desired results. Biological ages are different from chronological ages, and an under-developed child may return a false positive.

Children from the Konkan coast in Maharashtra to Kashmir, from Punjab to Mizoram, develop differently. A “one-size fits all” model of checks and detection is bound to fail.

But one needs to understand that age fraud is premature victory, a Pyrrhic one with heavy losses on all sides. It is also a damning indictment of the system where all stakeholders are equally culpable for the demise of genuine talent. There is no short-term fix to this malaise, only a long-term battle.

For Indian football, an internally normalised system needs heavy change and introspection to drastically alter decades of damage. The sooner it gears up for this war, the better.