A man of his age

As Obafemi Martins arrives on Tyneside one question still remains – how old is the Nigerian? Filippo Ricci reports

Before Newcastle’s UEFA Cup tie against Ventspils in August, Obafemi Martins was paraded in front of the crowd. Glenn Roeder was delighted with his £10 million signing from Internazionale – though he did face some slightly unwelcome questions regarding just how old the new man was. “We at Newcastle have never questioned his age. It is disrespectful to question his age, around the world we have a good reputation. He is 21, we know he is 21, we always have done, we have a talented young player.”

This was a line of inquiry for which I was, indirectly, responsible. In July last year I was looking for some information on the official website of the Nigerian Football Association, when I noticed that the then Inter striker Obafemi Martins appeared to have been aged by six years by his country’s officials.

His date of birth was reported on the NFA internet site to be May 1, 1978, while the official date given on the Inter site and everywhere else is October 28, 1984. I wrote a few lines for the Italian broadsheet newspaper Corriere della Sera, basically suggesting that it must have been a mistake, but suddenly the case drew international attention. For years there had been rumours about overaged African players competing in, and winning, World Cups at youth level. Some pundits wondered why many of these players, who looked like world-beaters as teens, did not then go on to have long careers at the top level. To some, my story looked as though a bit of proof had been found to confirm long-held suspicions.

But Giacinto Facchetti, who died this September but was then Inter’s president, knew that the fault lay elsewhere, telling the NFA that “this error reported in several Italian newspapers must be corrected immediately”. Oba Oba, as Martins was known in Italy, agreed, saying: “Fortunately my president knows that the NFA is not well organised.” He rang the then chairman of the NFA, Ibrahim Galadima. A long call followed during which Galadima managed to repair relations with one of his country’s best players by blaming the site’s webmaster and promising to correct the information as soon as possible.

Suddenly the webmaster was public enemy number one in Nigeria. The culprit was traced and theatrically arrested, with police staging a dawn raid at his house. He was put in jail until he’d agree to cooperate by revealing the password needed to change the site.

It seemed that the webmaster was in dispute with the NFA, accusing the association of not having paid him for several months. Frustrated at not getting his money, he had let the site rot, with no updates and no corrections made to a host of mistakes. Many players had identical birthdates, others simply had wrong ones, and the site was in a generally poor state. The wrong information had been there to be seen for months, with a direct link from the FIFA.com page dedicated to the Nigerian Football Association.

It seemed that no one at the NFA had ever thought of complaining, or trying to get the password and correcting the mistakes. But when the case erupted, everyone at the NFA was suddenly very interested in their internet presence. Finally the webmaster was persuaded to reveal the password. Someone logged on and made a few changes, but the site wasn’t renovated. And today if you click to the link of the Nigerian FA from the FIFA page (www.nigeriafa.com ) you don’t get anywhere. No doubt Obafemi Martins would prefer to have nothing said about him than something that was clearly wrong.

From WSC 236 October 2006. What was happening this month