Risk of Exposure

Systematic age fraud threatens the future of Indian football

Eric Lalsangzuala, who captained the India under-15 team against Slovenia last year, was found to be eighteen months overage. He later signed for Bengaluru FC.
01 April, 2020

In April 2019, as part of its preparations for the Asian under-16 championship this year, the Indian under-15 football team visited Italy for an “exposure tour.” In a press release, the All India Football Federation stated that its squad for matches against the United States, Mexico and Slovenia included players “born on or after January, 1 2004”—the cut-off date for the Asian championship. The team against Slovenia was captained by Eric Lalsangzuala, whose date of birth, according to the AIFF’s central registration system, is 15 June 2002, making him almost eighteen months too old. Lalsangzuala’s CRS entry had been approved by the AIFF on 20 November 2018, and could be readily accessed by AIFF officials, clubs, agents and scouts. His birth certificate was registered on 16 June 2002, confirming his overage status. This glaring oversight by the AIFF demonstrated its negligence towards the issue of age fraud, which continues to damage Indian football.

Exposure tours are a poor use of the substantial investment in Indian football over the past few years. Before the 2017 Under-17 World Cup, which India hosted, the AIFF spent crores of rupees on organising 17 such trips for the national team. This is a short-sighted strategy. Instead of investing in improving the state of the domestic game and laying the foundations for an organic pipeline of, say, ten thousand youth footballers, the AIFF chooses to chance its luck on a small group of players. It justifies this approach by focussing on isolated results, often inflating the significance of the results for greater publicity.

In August 2018, the AIFF celebrated “historic” results at unofficial tournaments for its under-16 and under-20 teams, against Iraq and Argentina, respectively. However, the Iraq team it beat was an under-14 outfit, hastily put together after nine members of the original squad were found to have falsified their age on their passports. The Argentina under-20 team, meanwhile, was a depleted squad—since clubs were not obligated to release their players for the tournament—and had rested most of its players for the India match. Ten of the 11 players who started the game did not play any other match in the tournament, and the team did not make any substitutions. The year before, in the run-up to the Under-17 World Cup, the AIFF celebrated a draw against a second-string Chile team and a win against an Italy side that turned out to be a representative squad of the third and fourth tiers of the Italian club championship.

Besides these one-off results, the exposure tours have not had any significant contributions to the growth of Indian football. In 2008, Airtel sponsored an exposure trip to the United States for the Indian under-16 team. Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, the current goalkeeper of the senior national team, was the only member of that squad to regularly play for India. None of the members of the under-14 team that spent nine months at the IMG academy in Florida in 2011 have stood out at even the club level. Moreover, whatever little value exposure tours generate is nullified if the players going on the trips are overage. In 2017, Raegan Albarnas, a forward in the team that attended the 2008 exposure tour, joined Chennai City FC. According to his CRS entry, he was 29 years old at the time, which would make him 21 when he was part of the under-16 team.