Age Is Only A Number As Newcastle Seal Mbemba Signing

Newcastle United Unveil New Signing Chancel Mbemba (Photo by Serena Taylor/Newcastle United via Getty Images)The revamp of Newcastle United under new boss Steve McLaren continued this week with his third signing of the window so far, defender Chancel Mbemba from Anderlecht. The Democratic Republic of Congo full back has arrived at the club for a fee of £8.5million and should go into Newcastle’s starting line up for next Sunday’s season opener against Southampton along with fellow newcomers Georginio Wijnaldum and Aleksandar Mitrovic. Mbemba is a powerful full back with good pace and a strong reading of the game who should add some bite to the Newcastle back line. Having played 36 times for Anderlecht last year including their six Champions League matches, Mbemba appears comfortable at the highest level and is being heralded as a coup by Newcastle who have stolen a player with the best years of his career ahead of him.

Chancel Mbemba impressed at Anderlecht  (Image from Getty)

Chancel Mbemba impressed at Anderlecht
(Image from Getty)

But how many years exactly has become an interesting side point and distraction in this transfer. The uncertainty over how old Mbemba actually is has plagued the player since he moved to Europe three years ago. The issue is that in Congo birth certificates and record keeping are rare so Mbemba’s exact year of birth is unknown. What is certain is that he arrived into the world on August 8th but of what year? The players first two clubs registered his birth year as 1988, making him 26 today however his country submitted 1991 as his year of birth when registering him for the African Cup of Nations. That would make him 23. Then when Mbemba moved to Europe to sign for Belgian side Anderlecht they registered his birth year as 1994 making him 20. The player himself has been reported to believe that his birth year was 1990 making him 24 today.

Mbemba in action for DR Congo  (Image from Getty)

Mbemba in action for DR Congo
(Image from Getty)

Where the truth falls in this story is unknown but FIFA has now launched a formal investigation to get to the bottom of it once and for all. It is suspected that the date given by the DR Congo national team was fabricated to allow Mbemba to take part in the 2012 Olympics games, a tournament he would have been illegible for if he was indeed born in 1988. By bring the clock forward, a move done by several African nations, he would be able to compete and would hand Congo an advantage against its competitors given Mbemba’s then size and strength. The birth dates given by Mbemba to his first clubs are likely to be incorrect as well due to poor medical/birth records or simply down to the players desire to play professionally for as long as possible. Many players in Africa see a career as a footballer as an escape from their current lives and a way to help their families. Adjusting their year of birth as they move around allows them to prolong their careers further and generate more money to send home. Mbemba is not the first nor will be the last player from Africa to have their age questions. Stars like Taribo West, Nwankwo Kanu and even former Newcastle striker Obafemi Martins have been questioned about their real age given that they appeared to have played at the highest level from a very young age.

Taribo West - How old is he really?  (Image from PA)

Taribo West – How old is he really?
(Image from PA)

To Newcastle and their fans, they care little about how old Mbemba is. Whether he is 20 or 24 makes little difference to Steve McLaren who sees the player as someone who will become an instant hit with the fans and will help Newcastle to progress on the pitch. Mbemba himself seems unmoved by the ongoing speculation around his year of birth and in fact has become accustom to having his teammates tease him on the issue. His international colleagues ritually poke fun at his ever-moving birthday but all agree that he has the potential to go all the way in the game. He has raised comparisons between himself and Manchester City defender Vincent Kompany back in Belgium and its hard to argue with. Both are powerful yet skillful defenders who can read the game brilliantly. Mbemba will now have the chance to show what he can do in England’s top league and whether he can replicate Kompany’s success and become one of Europe’s best defenders.

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Last Chance Saloon For Wenger As He Targets Cup Success

Last Chance Saloon for Wenger (Image from Getty)A wry smile crept over Arsenal Wenger’s face as he sat back and watched Wigan dispatch favourites Manchester City in the quarter finals of the FA Cup. He knew that this might be his best shot at delivering what the fans want – a first trophy in nine years. It’s hard to believe it has been so long but it has. When Arsenal last one a trophy, Manchester City were fighting for survival, not titles and Wigan had just secured their passage to the Premiership for the first time in their 73 year history. Now with only Premiership side Hull and Championships sides Sheffield United and Wigan left to compete against, this may be the best chance Arsenal have had in a very long time. City’s victors Wigan are up first in a semi final showdown that is a must win for Wenger if he is to keep his job longer than this summer.

Up Next - Wigan  (Image from Getty)

Up Next – Wigan
(Image from Getty)

Not that it’s a cut and dry as it seems. They face tough opposition in Wigan, who are looking to join a select list of clubs who have successfully defended the FA Cup. Shock winners last year, courtesy of a solo Ben Watson strike against Manchester City, Wigan have gone through a lot of changes since that fateful day in May last year. But what hasn’t changed is the belief and determination that they can win the cup again and beat anyone put in front of them on the way there. So far Wigan, now under the management of Uwe Rosler, has put MK Dons, Crystal Palace, Cardiff and City to the sword as they continue their run to Wembley.  Facing Arsenal, who have struggled lately with form, after a blistering start to the new season, will not worry Wigan as it’s the Premiership side that have it all to lose. In the past Wenger has given little care to the FA Cup, preferring to use either second string or emerging youngsters in these games. But he can ill afford to squander an opportunity to return to Wembley, especially given recent history.

Martins goal still haunts Wenger  (Image from PA)

Martins goal still haunts Wenger
(Image from PA)

Arsenal and Arsenal have been in this position before and have let a potential cup win slip through their fingers. Memories of a cup final defeat at the hands of Birmingham City still lay heavily on the minds of the Gunners faithful. That last minute drop of concentration that allowed Obefemi Martins to capitalize still must etch away at Wenger on a daily basis. Now could be his chance at redemption, but he must keep his players focused more on the job in hand than what level the opposition are playing at.  One thing that might work in Wenger’s favour is the fixture list for the two teams between now and the 12th April, when the two sides are scheduled to meet. Having been knocked out of the Champions League by Bayern Munich mid week, Arsenal face difficult games against Spurs, Chelsea, City, Everton and Swansea in the league before playing Wigan. The Championships side however have eight games to play in the league before they take on Arsenal including three must win games at the start of April which will likely stretch Rosler’s side to its fullest. Cup success for Wigan would be a bonus but gaining promotion back to the Premiership is their main goal. Sitting in 7th place, with two games in hand, Rosler’s team is pushing hard for a playoff berth. With 13 games left in the standard season including crunch games against Reading, Leicester and QPR, the clash with Arsenal may not be top of mind. But try telling that to owner Dave Whelan who still basks in the glory of last year’s cup success. Promotion back to the Premiership and lifting the FA Cup again is his dream, one that Arsene Wenger must do all he can to shatter.

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Best Not To Ask About His Age

Taribo West - How old is he really? (Image from PA)Former Newcastle striker Obafemi Martins has recently signed a contract to play in the MLS with Seattle Sounders at the youthful age of only 28 years old. The Toon army, Newcastle’s faithful followers, remember the Nigerian ace fondly after his spell at the club from 2006 to 2009. When he was bought from Inter Milan, Martins was a lively 22-year-old with his whole career ahead of him but in fact he had already spent six years in professional football making close over 90 appearances. Some, like Martins himself, insist that he started young, joining Reggiana at age 16 from local club, FC Ebedei but others suspect fowl play. Now, after a 13 year career involving moves to Inter, Newcastle, Wolfsburg, Rubin Kazin, Birmingham and Levante, Martin finds himself in the MLS in the supposed prime of his career. So why does he look so old?

Martins joined Seattle this season (Image from MLS)

Martins joined Seattle this season
(Image from MLS)

The startling truth is that Martins may be older than he is letting on. The problem of  players falsifying their age in order to extend their playing careers is rife in Africa, where birth records and certificates are few and far between. Over the past 20 years there have been several cases where players have been suspected of being older than they indicated. Fellow Nigerian Nwankwo Kanu’s official age is 36 according to Wikipedia but most suspect he is really around 44, whilst former international teammate and Bolton star Jay Jay Okocha is suspected to be in his late forties, rather than the 39 that he says he is. Now the latest player to be suspected of falsification is Tarbio West, with his former club, Serbian team Partizan Belgrade claiming he was lied to them in 2002 about his age in order for them to sign him. West told the club that he was 28 but is suspected of being actually 40. Whilst this estimation may be wildly exaggerated by Partizan, the club’s medical team did conclude that examinations of West’s knees revealed that he was older than the 28 years he suggested.

West is accused of being older than he indicated when he played for Partizans (Image from Afterfoot.fr)

West is accused of being older than he indicated when he played for Partizans
(Image from Afterfoot.fr)

The changing of ages by players has been an issue that FIFA have been aware of for some time and did in fact investigate Nigeria for almost two years, eventually banning them from all competitions after finding that the birth dates of three players submitted for the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, South Korea did not match those submitted by the same players in previous tournaments. Recent measures introduced by FIFA to prevent this from happening again, including wrist scanning that through the use of magnetic resonance imaging can determine the player’s true age, have proven successful with several African teams quickly removing a majority of players from their youth squads without explanation.

Wrist Scanning is one way to determine a players true age (Image from Fotonet)

Wrist Scanning is one way to determine a players true age
(Image from Fotonet)

Regardless of their suggested ages, Nigerian players do possess the ability to prolong their careers into their later years which helps to mask their true age. Most, like Martin follow strict routines around diet and excercise in an effort to stay as fit as possible. But with many playing for over 20+ years and retiring at the normal age of 34 or 36, it’s not hard to see why many are suspected of changing their ages to continue to play. West, like Kanu, Ockocha and Martins, has had a distinguished career that has taken him to clubs in Italy, France, England, Germany and Serbia over the past 26 years before he finally retired in 2008 aged 40. We will never truly know how old he was during his career and West will never tell, claiming that he was only as old as he felt at the time. With that philosophy, West could be 26 all over again.

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Nigeria Takes Strong Action Against Football Cheats

Nigerian Football (Image  form PA)Nigerian league football usually doesn’t get a lot of press across the globe unless something bizarre happens. So when two play-off games, played on the same day resulted in score lines more in line with a rugby match or cricket score, the world’s media glaze was firmly placed on the African nation. In a strange turn of events, the Nigeria Football Federation (NNF) was forced to act when two lower league teams who were both chasing promotion and desperately needed to bolster the goal difference tally won their respective matches 79-0 and 67-0. The match between Plateau United Feeders and Akurba FC and the match between Police Machine and Babayaro FC fell under the spotlight of the NNF based on their high scoring results, with all four teams suspended pending a further investigation.  This week, the NNF decided to act further by handing out life time bans to all players involved in the two matches in what has now become a very embarrassing story for Nigerian football.

All players involved in the four games have now been given life time bans  (Image from Getty)

All players involved in the four games have now been given life time bans
(Image from Getty)

The scandalous score lines are yet another black mark on Nigerian football which has gone through its fair share of bad press in the last twenty years. In 2010 Nigeria was banned by FIFA from competing in any tournaments after political interference in the running of the national team and its governing body. FIFA acted swiftly after it discovered that several members of the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) were hauled before the law courts to answer questions around election fraud, sparked by the refusal of the NFF to carry out the orders of the country’s Ministry of Sport, who wanted to restart the league without relegations from the previous season. FIFA were less than impressed and banned the African nation but eventually lifted it again when the court case was dropped. Previously In 1989, Nigeria’s youth national teams were banned by FIFA for fielding over-age players in FIFA-organised youth tournaments. In a growing problem in Africa, where birth certificates and registrations are few and far between, the true age of many players in the region is generally unknown. Just recently Partizan Belgrade questioned the true age of former defender and Nigerian legend Taribo West in court after deciding to sue the player for falsifying information about his real birthdate on his contract (covered in an earlier BOTN post). At the time of signing West, he told Partizans that he was 28 but after looking at the bone structure of his knees, the club concluded he was closer to 40. Looking back at the career of Taribo West (and indeed at several Nigerian players like Obafemi Martins, Jay Jay Okacha and Nwankwo Kanu) it’s not hard to see why the Serbian club were inquisitive about West’s extremely long career. The true age of West is unknown but many have speculated that he was at least 6 years older than he suggested at any given time.

Taribo West - How old is he really?  (Image from PA)

Taribo West – How old is he really?
(Image from PA)

Regardless of West’s real age, he had a fantastic career which is more than can be said for the players of the two fateful games mentioned earlier. They now face life bans which will more than certainly end their careers, with FIFA likely to extend those bans globally. The NFF concluded that the investigation had proved that all players and officials were involved in the match rigging. They also identified that the captain of Akurba FC, Arijide Said Timothy was the ring leader who organised the match fixing of both matches, and established that he had betting connections that were looking to profit from the two bizarre results. The two games were ridiculous in their execution and deemed shameful by the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) vice-president Mike Umeh:

“It was embarrassing that in one of the games, a player scored 11 times while in the other, four goals were scored within a minute and a player scored three own-goals in a match.”

The chairman of the House Committee for Sport, Godfret Gaiya has gone public with his support of the NFF decision to ban all concerns citing that Nigerian football did not need this type of negative development in a time when the country was beginning to see a resurgence in football pride following the recent national team’s success at the African Cup of Nations in January this year. In an interview with Vanguard Sports, one of the largest media sites in Nigeria, he expressed his dismay in the selfish actions of a few that had put his entire country’s football pedigree and reputation back by twenty years. Nigerian football has indeed been on the rise over the last six months since their somewhat surprise victory in South Africa but this latest incident will give fresh though to the notion that Nigeria still has a long way to come before football in their country can be deemed a successful again.

For our story on the age defying players, click here: https://backofthenetblog.wordpress.com/2013/06/07/best-not-to-ask-about-his-age/

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Demspey’s Departure Doesn’t Add Up

Seattle bring back Demspey to the MLS (Image from MLS)The real question that has risen this weekend at Tottenham is why exactly did Clint Dempsey move back to the MLS with Seattle Sounders? The move, worth just over $9 million, comes only a year after the American left Fulham for Tottenham in order to pursue his dream of playing in the Champions League. At present that dream would still be alive, regardless of Gareth Bales long term future at the club, as Tottenham continue to grow as title hopefuls under Andre Villas Boas. So that what changed?

Dempsey back home but for what reason?  (Image from Getty)

Dempsey back home but for what reason?
(Image from Getty)

That part is still very much unknown. At 30 years old, Dempsey still had a huge part to play at Spurs. His ability to play in several positions from midfield to the wings to a central striker made him a valuable asset to have in any squad and his uniquely direct approach to his game saw him consistently be one of the most exciting players in the league. For those two reasons alone you would have to believe that Dempsey was still very much in Andre Villas Boas plans, despite Tottenham strengthening in several key forward positions.

Dempsey during his time at Fulham  (Image from PA)

Dempsey during his time at Fulham
(Image from PA)

Perhaps for Dempsey, the lure of a move back home was too tempting and he felt that he should go now whilst he still has something to offer the league than in say three to four years time when he would be more likely to be going for one last paycheck. Certainly it’s not about the money right now. Granted the MLS is growing in stature but it cannot compete just yet with the financial clout of the Premiership. Going home for personal reasons looks more plausible but for the boy from Texas, Seattle is a long way away. The Sounders are a team in transition, having only joined the league in 2009 but the acquisition of Dempsey, along with other designated players Obafemi Martins and Mauro Rosales and a batch of talented US players, the three times US Open Cup champions are building a squad capable of challenging for honours on all fronts. Adding Dempsey, the current US Captain certainly helps their cause and will give the team a much needed boost for this season, with the team currently languishing in 7th place in the Western Conference.

Regardless of the reason behind his move, Dempsey is looking forward to kick starting this new chapter of his career:

“I am very excited about coming back to the MLS and thrilled to be joining Sounders. Having recently played in Seattle with the national team, I experienced the incredible atmosphere and the passion from the supporter’s first-hand. It’s going to be an honour to represent the fans in Seattle.”

Century Boy - 1 Cap away from 100 caps for USA  (Image from Getty)

Century Boy – 1 Cap away from 100 caps for USA
(Image from Getty)

The Premierships loss is the MLS’s gain as the expanding league picks up a quality player, still very much in his prime. Dempsey has built a successful career and will be remembered fondly by Fulham fans and Tottenham fans for his overall contribution to their clubs as well as to the league. Dempsey’s return to the MLS comes at an exciting time not just for Seattle but for the MLS as interest and crowds continue to grow within the league. One game away from 100 caps for his country, Dempsey has the potential of being the Beckham of Seattle by helping to inspire the next crop of US youngsters to follow in his footsteps and become US legends as well.

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Super Eagles Soar Again

Nigeria Squad (Image from Getty)It’s been 13 years since their last final appearance but Nigeria are back there once again after securing their place in the African Cup of Nations final. After qualifying from a tough group that contained reining champions Zambia, new boys Ethiopia and Burkina Faso, they faced favourites Ivory Coast in the quarter finals. After taking the lead, Nigeria (known as the Super Eagles) were pegged back by a Chieck Toite goal that looked to have swung the balance back in favour of the White Elephants (Ivory Coast) and all but end their run. But midfielder Sunday Mba had a different plan and hit the wining goal twelve minutes from time to put Nigeria into the semi finals. Surprise package Mali awaited for them there after knocking out host South Africa in a dramatic game eventually settled by penalties. Mali were 90 minutes away from their first final appearance since 1972 and approached the game with confidence. What they didn’t expect was to face a youthful Nigeria side out to prove a point and keen to secure their place in Sunday’s showcase match. A stunning first-half display helped the Super Eagles demolish Mali 4-1 at the Moses Mabhida Stadium in Durban and book their place against Burkina Faso in the final.

Nigeria celebrate during AFCON (Image from Eurosport.com)

Nigeria celebrate during AFCON
(Image from Eurosport.com)

Nigeria’s management team of Stephen Keshi and Daniel Amokachi, both legends in Nigeria, knows all about winning this tournament. Alongside the likes of Jay-Jay Okocha, Emmanuel Amuneke and Rashidi Yekini, they were part of the famous Super Eagles team that won the countries last African Cup of Nations title in February 1994, before going on to compete in the 1994 World Cup held in the USA. As they look forward to Sunday’s final, they will know that success is within their grasp especially now as they face Burkina Faso, who shocked the world by knocking out Ghana in the semi finals on penalties. But Nigeria will be weary of the surprise package after drawing 1-1 with them in their opening group game some three weeks ago. Keshi’s young squad is still growing in stature but this will be a huge challenge for the manager to mental prepare his team for their first cup final.

Keshi and Amokachi watch from the sidelines (Image from Futaa.com)

Keshi and Amokachi watch from the sidelines
(Image from Futaa.com)

After leaving out a host of more established players like Taye Taiwo, Peter Odemwingie, Obafemi Martins, and Yakubu Aiyegbeni in favour of blooding a host of stars for the future, Keshi looked to be adopting a risky strategy coming into the tournament, but his faith in his young squad is paying off after some blistering performances. Whilst it is still early days for his new look squad, Keshi knows that the goal is ultimately to recreate the brotherly like bond that was found in that 1994 squad, that was the platform for the Super Eagles to build a successful international team around that was feared throughout the football world:

“There is a lot of talent and potential in this team, but it’s going to take a while to get them up to where I want to. So far it’s gone well. There were lots of problems back home when I left out some of the senior players in the team, but I had my own reasons, which are known to me only. I know that some people did not understand, but I knew exactly the type of players we wanted, the mentality, the players who can work for the team. It took us five years to build the 1994 squad, this one is just five weeks old. That was a wonderful squad, the spirit in that team was unbelievable, we’re friends, we were brothers. Until I can get that same atmosphere from this team, we can’t really compare. I don’t want us to get ahead of ourselves; as I said, we’re still building. I Don’t think we’re there yet.”

Amokachi and co celebrate scoring in the 1994 World Cup (Image from Reuters)

Amokachi and co celebrate scoring in the 1994 World Cup
(Image from Reuters)

Keshi and Amokachi can further cement their legendary status in Nigeria by helping their country to lift the trophy on Sunday but that will matter little to the two former players. This tournament is part of a long-term plan that will hopefully take Nigeria to the World Cup Finals in Brazil next summer. A win on Sunday would be the perfect platform to build upon and give this young squad the confidence it needs to push forward. With the luxury of being able to bring back some of the more established members of the squad after the tournament, Keshi knows that his team can only get stronger and can hopefully recreate the family like atmosphere that the 1994 squad had. Ten years on from that team, it looks as though the next generation of Super Eagles stars has arrived and is keen to make their mark on the world game once again.

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