As the FIFA U-17 World Cup Nigeria 2009 approaches, a question familiar to everyone involved in youth competitions is inevitably raising its head once again: are all the players on the competing teams really 17 or under?
FIFA's rules, designed to ensure fair play and a level playing field for all, are quite clear on this matter, with the regulations for this year's U-17 competition stating that each member association has a responsibility to "ensure that all players of its representative team were born on or after 1 January 1992."
In the past, overage players have been wrongly entered into various youth competitions, often benefitting from an unfair advantage due to their greater physical maturity compared to players of the proper age. Until now, the main way of checking a player's age was to look at the date of birth stated in his or her passport - but this does not always solve the issue.
"We know that it is not generally bad intention or purpose if players are biologically above 17 years," stresses Dr Yacine Zerguini, member of the FIFA and CAF Medical Committees. "In some countries, birth certificates are inaccurate or even not available, without that necessarily being the fault of the player or the association."
To tackle this potential problem, FIFA has decided to conduct magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of the wrist at the FIFA U-17 World Cup, with randomly selected players being tested in Nigeria under the supervision of FIFA's medical experts.
The research behind the decision actually began in 2003 when, in response to numerous requests by member associations, FIFA's Medical Assessment and Research Centre (F-MARC) started to investigate the use of biological markers for age determination.
X-ray images of the growth plate of the left wrist have been used in court and paediatrics to determine age for decades. The growth plates of the bones of the human skeleton are open during growth, and close at different times with increasing age and maturity. However, for ethical reasons, the exposure to radiation prohibits the use of X-ray in the age screening of football players.
Prof. Jiri Dvorak, the chairman of F-MARC who also works in a large orthopaedic hospital, came up with the idea of using MRI instead, since MRI does not expose players to any radiation and also provides detailed images and better contrast between different body tissues than any other imaging systems in radiology. Consequently, F-MARC developed a new method that uses MRI for age determination.
In close collaboration with the AFC (Dr Gurchuran Singh), CAF (Dr Yacine Zerguini) and CONMEBOL (Dr Raul Madero), F-MARC performed MRI scans of the wrist in more than 500 football players of different ethnical origin (Switzerland, Malaysia, Algeria, Argentina, Senegal), all aged between 14 and 19 years and with confirmed birth certificates, and developed a six-point grading system for the fusion of the growth plate . It was established that in a normal population, complete fusion is very unlikely to occur prior to 17 years of age. In fact, the probability is less than 1%. In other words, if the MRI shows complete fusion of a player´s wrist, this player is older than 17 years with a certainty of more than 99%.
F-MARC then performed MRI scans of the wrist on players selected randomly at the FIFA U-17 World Cups 2003, 2005 and 2007. The results were striking, with the players' scans showing a far higher rate of fusion (up to 35%) than those found in the reference populations . Since the establishment of the new technique, more then 1,500 MRIs have been performed, adding further robustness to the accuracy of the testing. Similar studies have also now been initiated for women and U-17 female players.
"MRI of the wrist is a simple, reliable, valid and non-invasive method of age determination in young male football players," says Prof. Dvorak. "We can identify overage players at U-17 competitions at no risk to the individual. This is of considerable help both to member associations and FIFA."
The Executive Committee of the Asian Football Confederation has already demonstrated its interest in the results of the F-MARC study, ordering that all players registered for the qualifying and final rounds of the AFC U-16 Championship who did not participate in the preceding AFC Festival of Football at U-13 and U-14 level must undergo MRI of the wrist for analysis by independent FIFA or AFC experts in order to guarantee their age eligibility. So far, the approach has proven highly successful in reducing the number of incidents involving potentially overage players, with the confederation identifying only one such case in 2008.
When it comes to FIFA's own competitions, including the upcoming FIFA U-17 World Cup, world football's governing body is encouraging and supporting participating member associations to conduct their own MRI tests in the build-up to the tournament in order to ensure that players are compliant with the age limit.
While such tests by the individual member associations are not yet mandatory, the advantages of carrying them out are self-apparent, with responsible associations able to ensure that their players are indeed as young as their passports say they are, and that they do not end up unwittingly attending a major international tournament with a squad that could contain overage players.
This article is from the October issue of FIFA World, the new FIFA magazine. You can read every issue of FIFA World online by clicking the link on the right.