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TW3 age verification: Clubs dealt difficult hand by AIFF

10:30 PM GMT+4 31/12/2018
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The AIFF's attempt to restructure the youth leagues has the clubs in a spot of bother...

In July, 2018, the All India Football Federation's (AIFF) Executive Committee met in Mumbai and one of the decisions taken at the meeting was the implementation of Tanner Whitehouse 3 (TW3) method for all age-group competitions in India.

The TW3 method uses X-Rays of the left hand and wrist to examine the skeletal maturity of a person and thereby determine their bone age. The bone age obtained from the result of this test would then be the sole criterion to determine players' eligibility in age-group tournaments, as opposed to chronological age which was the yardstick until the 2017-18 season.

From using age-proof documents to verify a player's age to using the TW3 method, the intention to make the change was to curb age fraud in Indian football. While the intent is appreciable, the method chosen and its implementation leaves a lot to be desired.

The qualification for U-13 and U-15 Youth League, which is now rechristened as Junior and Sub-Junior league, has given rise to several questions. According to the latest guidelines by the AIFF, the bone age of a player should not exceed 14 for Sub-Junior League and 16 for Junior Leagues.

One of the reasons why the AIFF rechristened the tournaments is because they wanted to save themselves from being taken to court. If someone whose birth certificate says he/she is 12 years old and the AIFF says they can't play in the U13 tournament, they are liable to be sued. Hence, they have conveniently renamed the age groups as such. 

Most importantly, both FIFA and the AFC (Asian Football Confederation) do not follow the TW3 method and accepts only MRI scan results for age verification. This means that a player, who is eligible to take part in age-group tournaments for the Indian national team, may be denied participation in the Indian age-group leagues.

Several players who have played and selected for the national team have now been disqualified after going through the AIFF-nominated TW3 tests to take part in the U-15 and U-13 league at the club level. In fact, two Bengaluru FC players who had passed the TW3 test conducted by the AIFF and the Government of India to be a part of the Indian national team at the 2018 SAFF U-15 Championship, have now been ruled out of the U-15 I-League due to AIFF's insistence to conduct the TW3 tests for the youth leagues in their own way.

The football season in India begins on June 1 and ends on May 30. The implementation process started in August and the tests were completed only in November. The tests were done in centres nominated by AIFF and the cost for it was INR 1500/- per player. For a club taking part in both the Junior and Sub Junior leagues with a squad of 30 players, the total cost just for the TW3 tests amounts to INR 90,000/-.

A player who is physically gifted will register a higher bone age and will be considered ineligible for the age-group that he is recruited for. Where does that leave the club and the player, since the new guidelines were introduced months after football season had already started? It has been learnt that a large majority of the players are now ineligible to take part in the youth leagues under the current system and several clubs have already let the AIFF know of their concerns.

Several clubs in Mumbai have already come together to deliberate on the issue and are set to meet with the state association and appeal to the apex body.

Taking bone age as the sole criteria also brings us to question the psychological impact it can have on the young player. Skeletal maturity is not the same as mental maturity and a 13-year-old kid with a bone age higher than 14 will have to consider playing in what will be essentially an U-15 League. 

Another issue is the 'Date of Birth' cut-off set for these two leagues. The players for Junior League must be born on or after January 1, 2003 and for Sub-Junior League, the cut-off date is January 1, 2005. The AIFF has accepted that the TW3 test has a standard deviation of +/- 6 months. A player born in January, 2003 who undergoes the test in November 2018 is likely to get a bone age of 15.9. With a deviation of six months, the player would be deemed over-age.

Such a nation-wide restructuring requires deliberation and if TW3 is the way to go, it would have been better to integrate it into the system steadily instead of implementing in a hurry.

One thing that makes football a global sport is that the rules are uniform throughout the world. If the AFC and FIFA do not use TW3 for age verification, why would the AIFF be in a hurry to use TW3 for the same? It makes absolutely no sense to implement a whole new process which is not foolproof at all.

Now, what happens in school-level tournaments where insisting on TW3 verification for young kids is not viable. Even if so, would you make a kid in seventh grade play with somebody in ninth grade?

A 13-year-old kid was recently adjudged to be 8 years old by the TW3 method while a kid of German ethnicity was deemed Indian by the same method. It has given rise to such confusion that now you are not sure which age group of players you are playing against.

Even the AIFF's communication regarding the method seems haphazard and confusing. In their first communication, it was spelt out that the TW3 test needs to be taken every year. Then they revised it and said it needs to be taken every two years. The Indian FA themselves are not sure about how to implement this.

Just because the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) is doing the same, why would AIFF feel the need to do so, especially when the AFC and FIFA (it's governing bodies) do not follow the practice?

In case the AIFF wanted to use TW3 so badly, why not use it in conjunction with the MRI system adopted by FIFA and AFC. Why stick to an entirely different method?

A lot of questions for the Indian FA to ponder.