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?
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.
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.
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.