U-17 CECAFA-gate? Overage players? Ethiopia’s Football Federation appears to be covering up a scandal as evidence of bureaucratic blunders emerges

By Zecharias Zelalem

The Ethiopian Football Federation’s upper echelon appears to be currently engaged in a cagey battle against time. Over the past few weeks, bits and snippets of the truth of what led to Ethiopia’s U-17 national football team being penalized for fielding overage players at the 2018 U-17 CECAFA Cup are being unearthed. Despite the whole fiasco being portrayed as an umpteenth case of age cheating, there now appears to have been no such attempt at all. Yes, you read that right, there doesn’t appear to have been an attempt at fielding overage players by Ethiopia. Instead, all indications are pointing towards forgetfulness and outright carelessness on the part of several EFF officials, including embattled President Juneidi Basha dating back to a year ago, as being catalyst in seeing the trophy aspirations of the Red Foxes go up in smoke.

On Friday April 20th, The Red Foxes, Ethiopia’s U-17 national football team were sent packing from the 2018 U-17 CECAFA Cup after a 1-0 defeat at the hands of host nation Burundi saw them fail to escape the group stage. First round elimination almost appeared inevitable after CECAFA ordered the team’s 3-1 opening day victory over Somalia overturned as a consequence of Ethiopia’s apparently fielding three overage players. A forfeited 3-0 victory handed to the Ocean Stars and a 5000$ fine later, Ethiopian football fans were left lamenting the team’s slim chances at lifting silverware in Burundi. The Red Foxes managed to hold Kenya to a goalless draw, before being put to the sword by Burundi. Fans, familiar with the local game’s age old issue of older players being fielded in youth tournaments, were left fuming. The players were labeled cheats, and the EFF was lambasted after having promised to crack down on the practice.

The conduct of the Ethiopian Football Federation (EFF) has been fishy to say the least. In other parts of the world, protocol would normally require the people running the federation to appear at a press conference, heads hung in shame, appearing apologetic for the embarrassment caused. A less than satisfactory explanation could see the rolling of heads and the sacking of individuals. But this isn’t the case in Ethiopia.

Ethiopian U17 Team

Instead, since the April 15th decision by CECAFA to dock Ethiopia three points, EFF officials have mostly maintained a vow of silence that has seen them outright refuse to address fans and the media. No press conferences, no communiques, no interviews with local radio or papers, even the EFF’s Twitter and Facebook pages have been abandoned for about two to three weeks now.

The EFF unsuccessfully appealed the CECAFA ruling, although nobody was notified about it. The EFF made no effort to contact local media and let them know what they were up to Why? Why so hush hush? Is it even morally permissible to siphon off all access to information the inner workings of national teams that represent a hundred million people and leave the nation in the dark? People were hounding the EFF for an explanation as to why Ethiopia’s U-17 team fielded ineligible players. Why have the suits in office who are under a mandate to provide people with answers, gone awol?

There’s appears to be a clear answer to all this. EFF officials would be rhetorically left with egg all over their faces if the extent of their howlers became public knowledge. And with protracted EFF Presidential elections in the workings, current President Juneidi Basha, appears to be desperately trying to cover his tracks, as the news might serve to land him in hot water and prevent him from winning a second term in office as EFF President.

CECAFA Executive Committee members, including Juneidi Basha at the meeting in Khartoum

The meeting in Khartoum

September 29th 2017. Khartoum, Sudan. CECAFA organizes a “Extraordinary General Assembly” in which all the member states convened to discuss the allocation of regional football tournaments. Burundi was selected as the host nation for the 2018 U-17 CECAFA Cup currently underway. But that’s not all the member states agreed to.

Speaking to EthioSports, CECAFA Secretary General Nicholas Musonye made it clear that despite this being a U-17 tournament, only sixteen year olds would be allowed to play. His reasoning? With the 2019 U-17 AFCON on the horizon, the teams should enter this year’s tournament with players that will be eligible for next year’s continental competition. It would serve as preparation and as a mechanism to gel the team. Qualification for that tournament begins in August and the recently concluded tournament would serve as a warm-up opportunity. Seventeen year olds will be turning eighteen next year and won’t be eligible to take part in the 2019 U-17 AFCON. So this year’s tournament would be open to boys aged sixteen or less. This was agreed to by all, says Musonye.

“Since the U-17 AFCON 2019 qualifiers were to be held in 2018, we thought the 2018 U-17 CECAFA Cup in Burundi would be considered part of preparations,” Musonye told EthioSports. “So we agreed that the same age limit would apply for both the current tournament underway in Burundi and the subsequent tournaments including the main one next year.” 

Ethiopian Football Federation President Juneidi Basha attended the general assembly in Khartoum. He was alongside Nicholas Musonye and others and departed from Khartoum having no objection to what was said, further certifying the rules and regulations for the current tournament, including the agreement to only field sixteen year olds in Burundi. This meant he agreed to and was thus aware that only players born after January 1st 2002 would be permitted to take the field in Burundi. He was the only Ethiopian representative at the meeting. He had the responsibility to relay information back to EFF headquarters and let the team selectors and head coaches know that they should leave out the seventeen year olds from travelling to Burundi as per their agreement.

CAF Secretary General Nicholas Musonye (right) told EthioSports that at the 2017 meeting in Khartoum in which Juneydi Basha was a participant in, all parties agreed to a specific age that limited the tournament to players born no earlier than January 1st 2002 (Photo CHRIS OMOLLO | NATION MEDIA GROUP)

But he didn’t. He appears to have forgotten. He had one job really, and that was to report back to base with what he learned as Ethiopia’s representative at an international conference, he never did. An active Twitter user, he tweeted from Khartoum proudly announcing that he had participated in the revamping of the procedures for CECAFA competitions. However, the Ethiopian U-17 national team wasn’t notified about the fact that they had to leave out players who would be turning seventeen this year ahead of their ill fated trip to Burundi. Seven months later, a twenty five man Red Foxes contingent departed for Bujumbura, coaches, masseurs, and a twenty man squad with three players born in the year 2001 in tow. Those three players, Redwan Nasir of Addis Ababa City FC, Mesfin Tafesse of Hawassa Kenema FC and Muse Kebela of Ethiopian Coffee FC, are the three “over-aged” players that were fielded against Somalia and cost Ethiopia three points.

Mesfin Tafesse, who turned sixteen in November, had scored a hattrick in the game against Somalia and had set the Red Foxes up and running. He later told Ethiopian football portal Soccer Ethiopia that he intended to challenge for the tournament’s golden boot award. Even he must have been confused when he was told that he was too old to play in an under seventeen tournament.

CECAFA could be considered partially responsible for this mess. Despite an agreement to forbid seventeen year olds from taking part in the competition, they insisted on referring to the tournament as the “U-17 CECAFA Cup,” which is highly misleading to say the least. But still, the EFF’s President had been among the signatories of the deal to proceed in this manner. He knew, and yet he failed to take note of this or pass the information down to those in charge of team selection. The Red Foxes and their fans would pay dearly for this error.

The EFF automatically appealed the decision. After all, technically speaking for a U-17 tournament, there were no overage players. In fact, each and every player in the squad was sixteen years of age or younger. But due to the EFF’s refusal to go to press with their version of the story, the notion among fans is that the three players are in their twenties and were just out there to unfairly exploit an opportunity to further their careers. Nothing could be further from the truth. The boys are completely innocent of any wrongdoing and were said to be devastated by the news that their victory over Somalia was to be expunged from the records.

Document obtained by Soccer Ethiopia showing the DOB of all the players. The oldest player in the squad and one of the three “over age” players, Muse Kebela, was born on October 27th 2001, making him 16 years old today.

But CECAFA’s Secretary General sent a response to the leader of Ethiopia’s delegation in Burundi. In the message that has since been screenshot and shared on social media, Nicholas Mulonye appears to insinuate that prior to the start of the tournament; CECAFA had sent the EFF a reminder of the terms agreed to in Khartoum. And yet Ethiopia still failed to adhere to them.

“It is our final advice,” Mulonye wrote in the letter dated two days after the game against Somalia, “that your federation keeps an eye on all correspondences always sent to you in order to avoid such future sanctions.” 

Letter to Ethiopian delegation from Nicholas Musonye notifying them of their being penalized for fielding three overage players.

Diverting the blame: EFF medical chief’s misleading comments

In an interview published on Soccer Ethiopia days ago, a federation official finally broke the organization’s collective silence on the affair and offered his take. Dr. Nasreddine Abdurahim, who oversaw the medical examinations and health checks of all the players, told Soccer Ethiopia that MRI scans revealed the entirety of the team to be composed of sixteen year olds.

“The MRI scans identified all the players as sixteen year olds,” Dr. Nasreddine. “This means that these players would be under the permitted age cap until the end of 2019. So as per the scans, officials should have made sure the players all had 2002 indicated as a year of birth on their passports. Instead, three of the players had 2001 indicated on their passports, which caused the team to be penalized.” 

Although MRI scans can give very accurate and precise estimates of a player’s age as is detailed in this article, MRI scans cannot determine a person’s date of birth. The majority of people born in 2001 are still sixteen years old today. Dr. Nasreddine’s claim that he was able to observe the data collected by MRI scans and determine that every member of the squad was born in 2002 is misleading to say the least.

Former FIFA Chief medical officer Jiri Dvorak, a proponent for FIFA’s use of the MRI scan for determining the age of participants in youth tournaments, penned a study on it some years back. According to the Czech doctor, ossification of the distal radius bone in the forearm tends to occur in males around the age of eighteen. This was certified by a study he conducted involving nearly five hundred youths from different parts of the world. “The mean age of participants with complete fusion of the radius was 18.3 years,” reads the published entry on the study. “(This) indicates that complete fusion is very unlikely to occur at 17 years of age.” Dvorak was able to determine that with a look at a bone’s ossification, an MRI scan could determine a player’s approximate age. However, there’s no way of using this test to pinpoint a youth’s specific date of birth.

In his interview with a Soccer Ethiopia reporter, Dr. Nasreddine alleged he had been able to determine that the players would all still be seventeen by the end of 2019. Studies clearly indicate that there is no way an MRI scan could ascertain this. Dr. Nasreddine’s attempt to stretch the truth about his findings may point towards something else. As the only EFF official to address the media until now, it could have been a pre-emptive measure. Perhaps an attempt to finger someone in the lower queues of the federation hierarchy as being responsible for the U-17 team being docked points in Burundi. It would help get the heat off the one man we are now certain knew of the age cap agreement, Juneidi Basha.

As had been stated above, there’s conclusive evidence that at least one EFF official in President Juneidi Basha should be held accountable for the mess in Burundi. The EFF President is yet to comment publicly on the affair.

The problem lies with officials who were handling the passports,” Dr. Nassredine told Soccer Ethiopia. “They can’t expect us doctors to handle the passports, it isn’t our job. We sent the results of our examinations and the scans and they should have used the correct year as per our data.” Once again, the doctor appears to be perpetuating the lie that he was able to specifically point out the year of birth of each player with the MRI scans.

Determining a player’s approximate age would in no way determine the year he was born. A sixteen year old could be born in 2001 or 2002 and there’s no way an MRI scan could ascertain the year of birth of a player in question. It’s medically impossible to do what the doctor says he did, and one can assume that as a medical professional, Dr. Nassredine knows this. So why would he go on record as saying this? It’s unclear and up for speculation. As mentioned above, the theory that this interview was conducted with the goal of putting unspecified officials other than the EFF President in the spotlight, is gaining traction.

The EFF President remains mum on the topic of the U-17 team’s age controversy. Recently he was in Mekelle accompanying a CAF delegation observing facilities as Ethiopia plans on hosting the 2020 CHAN tournament in two years’ time. But he is likely preoccupied by his own precarious position.

Juneidi’s Predicament

Repeated postponements of the EFF Presidential elections appear to be attempts at stalling his own disembarkment from the throne that he has sat on since 2013. In that time period, Ethiopian football has plummeted to new depths that saw a shortly lived footballing renaissance between 2012-2013 be reversed. But beyond the mediocre results, the epidemic of stadium violence has been rearing its ugly end on a near weekly basis, with the federation completely hapless as matches are turned into gladiator domes for hooligans in stadiums all across the country. Rare are rounds of Ethiopian Premier League action in which at least one match isn’t interrupted by pitch invasions, stone throwing supporters or clashes amongst fans outside of the stadium. Now incidents of players and even staff physically attacking referees are becoming common place. The EFF has appeared weak and indecisive in dealing with the scourge.

EFF President Juneidi Basha has enough problems as it is

With the EFF’s administrative ineptitude weighing down heavily on Juneidi Basha’s shoulders, the news that he neglected to tell his colleagues about an all new and important rule change ahead of the 2018 U-17 CECAFA Cup might all but dash his ambitions at a second term. An attempt at dodging the bullet has seen him shove the whole thing under the rug and cover up his direct role. This has left most fans believing that Ethiopia traveled to Burundi with three lads probably well into their twenties, and that these three greedy, glory seeking players swindled officials and lied about their ages. Right now, it’s what most fans believe cost the Red Foxes a berth in the semi-finals. This couldn’t be further from the truth. A cover up has ensured that most don’t know that a 57 year old may have cost Ethiopia three points in Burundi.