Cheats hit soccer

The country’s national football team ‘ affectionately known by their fans as the Flames ‘ lost both its games in a Cosafa Castle Cup qualifying tournament in Windhoek, Namibia, two weeks ago.

They were six minutes from victory as they led bitter rivals Zambia 1-0 in their semi-final qualifier but then collapsed in spectacular fashion as they conceded three goals in the remaining minutes.

The following day they were beaten by hosts Namibia 1-3 and the Flames returned home to face a nation demanding answers for the two defeats after what had appeared to be a promising campaign for Malawi.

Dutch coach Burkhard Ziese has become Public Enemy Number One in Malawi with the fans ‘ their view heavily influenced by a media that wants the coach to be fired ‘ calling for his immediate dismissal.

Ziese has refused to apologise for the two defeats in Namibia and has instead asked his players ‘ whom he believes were guilty of lacking the concentration needed to weather the Zambian pressure in the closing minutes ‘ to apologise to the nation.

But amid all the drama and chaos that is unfolding daily in the Malawian media, is a nation that is struggling to come to terms with the reality that their football has a growing constituency of shameless age cheats.

The focus is currently centred on Flames’ goalkeeper Simoen Kapuza who plays for the local top-flight side Super Escom.

It all started in Namibia when SuperSport television commentators ‘ Mark Gleeson and William Shongwe ‘ picked up an anomaly in the age provided by Kapuza for this year’s tournament.

The two commentators were surprised to realise that Kapuza had given his official age as 21 ‘ seven years after the same player was included in the Flames squad for the Cosafa Castle Cup in 1999.

Assuming that Kapuzas is indeed 21 ‘ as he claimed this year ‘ then it meant that he was just a 14-year-old goalkeeper when he made his Cosafa Castle Cup debut for Malawi.

That would probably have made world headlines given that 14-year-olds are likely to be guarding the posts of their secondary school teams ‘ or, in some cases, primary school teams ‘ than playing for their national teams.

Information gathered in Blantyre last weekend shows that Kapuza was born on February 11 in 1980.

That would make him 26 this year ‘ an age that is probably closer to his real age than what he provided for the Cosafa Castle Cup files in Windhoek.

Assuming that he is now 26, then Kapuza was about 19 seven years ago when he was included in the Flames’ team for the Cosafa Castle Cup campaign.

Again that is a more realistic age for an international goalkeeper than 14.

Kapuza has not officially commented on the furore surrounding his age although comments made by his national team captain ‘ Peter Mponda ‘ that age-cheats are rampant in Malawian football will not help his cause.

Mponda, who plies his trade in South Africa and was part of the team that played in 1999, said he was aware of many football players who had altered their ages so that they appear younger and become more marketable.

He did not mention any names.

But the mere fact that the captain of the Malawian national team was brave enough to confirm this vice goes to show that it’s a cancer that is spreading in Malawian football.

The Cosafa Castle Cup is not restricted to any particular age groups but, with players using the tournament to attract the attention of foreign teams, it is highly likely that Kapuza could have altered his age to make himself more marketable.

Foreign teams generally like young players.

“It’s something that is worrying from a national point of view because no country in this world wants to be associated with cheats representing it in international sporting activities,” said Malawian football agent Felix Sapao.

“I believe that some unscrupulous people who want to make a quick buck by selling players could be behind all this and they might be deceiving our stars into this business of changing their real ages.

“But I think this is a global problem and we all need to be united so that we don’t end up getting 49-year-olds making their professional debut saying that they are 21-year-olds.”

Admittedly age-cheating in sport is not unique to Malawi and there are scores of cases involving other countries who have dealt with this vice.

Pressure has been mounting on the Malawian football fraternity in recent years as the cream of the nation’s footballers finds its way into the South African and European markets.

While that is good news from a development point, it comes at a cost as unscrupulous dealers also come into the scene and one of their immediate focus is to alter the ages of those who show potential.

It’s a problem that the heavyweights of Southern African football ‘ Zambia and Zimbabwe ‘ have had to deal with in the past.

Zimbabwean soccer star Newton Katanha had his contract with a German club terminated two years ago after medical tests showed that he was indeed 28 and not 22 as his passport indicated.

Katanha’s injury took time to heal ‘ a process that would have taken a short time had he been a 22-year-old ‘ and the Germans decided to conduct tests on the player’s bones.

The results showed that Katanha was around 28 and not 22 and his contract was terminated with Uefa slapping him with a ban from playing in all matches held under the auspices of their member nations.

Katanha is now in Vietnam.

Eleven years ago the Zimbabwe Under-23 team was rocked by a similar scandal after newspaper revelations showed that a number of the players had altered their ages ahead of their final qualifier against Nigeria.

All the players belonged to DT Africa United ‘ a team owned by Polish agent Wieslaw Grabowski, who had sold a number of Zimbabwean players to Europe.

Five of the players were barred from playing in the game against Nigeria after authorities confirmed that their ages had been altered to make them appear younger.

Zimbabwe lost 0-2 on aggregate and Nigeria went on to win the gold medal at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, United States.

One of the DT Africa United players ‘ the late Usman Misi ‘ then dropped a bombshell, telling the nation that he was lured into altering his age because European clubs were interested in young players only.

Last weekend the Malawian national Under-17 football team hosted Lesotho in the second leg of their African youth championships qualifier in Lilongwe.

Malawi won the first leg 3-0 and then lost 1-2 at home to go through 4-2 on aggregate.

Neighbours Tanzania did not take part in the same competition after the Confederation of African Football barred them from competing because of an age-cheating scandal last year.

“We have been left out because we messed up,” Tanzania Football Federation vice-president Crescentius Magori told reporters as he blamed the absence of a proper monitoring system that would help them pick the right athletes for the right competitions.

“The committee found out that there is no proper system of identifying and selecting players for the national junior team.

“Coaches picked up the players randomly from some teams without paying much attention to their ages.”

There have been problems in Kenya, too, with the government even going to the extent of disbanding all the national teams after revelations that at least two members of their Under-17 team used false ages.

Experts even claim that the African youth teams, which have done very well in world football championships, owe their success to fielding over-aged players.

Ghana’s Black Stars only qualified for their maiden World Cup finals this year but their junior teams have done very well at world youth championships.

Ghana won the World Under-17 Championships in Italy in 1991with Nii Odartey Lamptey being voted the best player at the tournament and was the joint top goalscorer with Brazilian striker Adriano.

Italian football icon Alessandro Del Piero played in the same tournament.

Both Adriano and Del Piero were at the World Cup finals in Germany but Lamptey has faded from the face of global football.

“What happened?” asked a Ghanaian critic Godwin Yao Ogkapo, who is based in the US, in a scholarly article published recently.

“Where are Alex Opoku and Emmanuel Duah? Is it that Adriano was so lucky not to have had tired legs and bones? Was he so young and his Ghanaian counterparts too old?

“Japan ’93 was even more revealing. Ghana may not have won that tournament but they produced the brilliance that made them carve a niche for themselves.

“The player of the tournament award went to Daniel Addo, the darling boy of Ghanaian football, who stole the heart of many soccer fans around the world with his creative power and skill while scoring three goals.

“That same tournament saw other players like Francesco Totti of Italy and Hitedoshi Nakata of Japan. Both Nakata and Totti were in Germany for the World Cup finals but where was Addo?

“The fact is most, if not all, African junior championship winning teams have had over-aged players and Ghana cannot be left out of this game.

“I am surprised that the world is only seeing this now. The African professionals in Europe lie about their ages and, in fact, this permeates other European teams but the dimension of age-cheating in Ghana (and Africa) is shocking.

“You come into contact with a player who was three years your senior at school and the next thing you hear he is fifteen (15) when you (the junior) are supposed to be 26 years.”

He might as well have been writing about Flames goalkeeper Simeon Kapuza.

After conceding three goals in the final minutes of his team’s defeat against Zambia that destroyed their Cosafa Castle Cup dreams for yet another year, the age-cheating scandal could not have come at a worse time for Kapuza.

August 2006
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