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On a cold  Sunday afternoon in Bulawayo on June 26, Warriors star Marvelous Nakamba warmed the hearts of Zimbabwean football fans.

The Aston Villa midfielder arrived at the Marvelous Nakamba Foundation (MNF) U-17 invitational tournament at White City Stadium to a hero’s welcome.

The down-to-earth star pledged his support for the growth of football.

On this day, hundreds of people braved the cold weather to attend the rescheduled tournament. It was  was supposed to have been held last year but could not go ahead because of Covid-19.

But the unexpected but now so common happened. Dynamos, one of the participating teams, was disqualified for using over-aged players.

The incident reminded football fans of one of the scandals that has tormented Zimbabwean football for many years – age cheating. 

The player who caused the storm, was midfielder Dylan Gumbe. 

This is not the first time the footballer is part of a cheating scandal.

Gumbe was also part of the national U-17 team which got disqualified from the 2020 Cosafa U-17 tournament for age-cheating. 

By fielding Gumbe for the U-17 tournament, Dynamos implied that he was under the age of 17. But an investigation by Soccer24 revealed that his Grade 7 results indicate that the player was in fact born in October 2000, making him five years older than the required age. 

The story of Gumbe is not new in the tally of Zimbabwean football scandals.

National teams General Manager Wellington Mpandare acknowledges the problem exists but shifts the blame on high schools.

“Age cheating is so rampant in Zimbabwe, schools are the chief culprits,” said Mpandare.

“They (schools) have a tendency of changing players’ dates of birth so that they remain eligible to play for their school teams. All academies should register with Zifa and have all their players registered as well.”

Even so, he acknowledged the problem can only be mitigated not entirely eradicated.

“The FA should maintain a data base for all age groups. That way it becomes difficult to cheat. We can only minimize cheating because these players change names or add middle names,” Mpandare said. 

Mpandare believes going forward, educational certificates should be used in the vetting process to curb age cheating.

“For U17 and below the parents will come with indemnity forms.  Vetting is done verbally and it’s difficult to tell if the parent confirms as a true reflection of date of birth,” explained Mpandare.

“Going forward, I think the players should be asked to bring their grade seven certificates as well as Ordinary Level certificates. Those with new birth certificates should be thoroughly investigated,” he said.

The country’s football governing body, ZIFA, has not treated the age fraud scourge with the seriousness it deserves.

Less than a year after the Young Warriors were disqualified from the Cosafa 2020, nine players in the national U-17 squad for the African Union Sports Council Region Five Youth Games failed the Magnetic Resonace Imaging (MRI) tests.

That procedure was introduced to by FIFA. It requires youth players to submit to magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans of their wrists in an attempt to determine their age eligibility.

ZIFA Technical Director Wilson Mutekede admits age cheating is not only a setback for football in Zimbabwe, it’s also an embarrassing advert for the local game.

”This issue is an embarrassing drawback for our football in the country. It is a pity that while other countries are focusing on developing right aged players, we are bogging ourselves down with training over aged players using the little resources that we have,” said Mutekede. 

Age cheating has been part and parcel of football.

“It’s a cause for concern. We have been in this for quite some time. There have been a lot of allegations, some which have been laid bare and exposed but it’s a pity that we are not changing.

“It is indeed a crisis. Age cheaters are quite complicated. There is a lot of connivance between a number of stakeholders– the player himself, the coaches, the club and in some instances, even the parent.“

Mutekede believes only embracing technology and stiffer punishments, can end the problem.

“Once those that are caught, there must be deterrent measures that are taken, so that people know the effects of age cheating,” he said. 

The deep-rooted problem has marred Zimbabwean football for years and former Dynamos captain Memory Mucharehohwa says it has existed since time immemorial.

“We didn’t have such problems during our days. If there was, then they were very few cases,” he said. 

Mucherahowa believes the genesis of age-cheating in Zimbabwean football, was the arrival of long-serving Polish mentor Wiesław Grabowski, in 1985. 

“I think the problem of age-cheating started when Grabowski arrived and during his days at Daryn T. There are a lot of celebrated players I obviously won’t name but they got themselves in age cheating then,” Mucherahowa said. 

“The problem with age cheating is that you will be preparing the wrong people and it’s a waste of time. If a player is involved in age cheating, they will also be depriving young players of the required age, the opportunities to showcase their talent. 

“You will have a situation whereby a talented player of the right age is overlooked because of someone who is a bit better but would have cheated his age, it’s hinders progress as far as development is concerned,” he added. 

Age cheating goes beyond football, and there are people at the Central Registry reportedly involved in the corrupt issuing of new birth certificates. 

Zimbabwe Anti-Corruption Commission (ZACC) spokesperson John Makamure encouraged those with any information regarding the issue, to bring it forward for further investigation. 

“We encourage those with information to bring it to the commission.  Once that is done, we will look into it and take the action we deem appropriate,” he said. 

“I can’t say what we can do, until the complains are brought to our attention,” added Makamure. 

Despite the fact that Zimbabwe has long been plagued by age cheating scandals, authorities have done little to solve this mentality. But as authorities dither to take action, the name of Zimbabwean football is being soiled and the nation is paying the price.