It is not difficult to work out why age cheating takes place in football and why two trends of recent decades have made it a temptation that some are unable to refuse.
The first trend is globalisation of the market in players. The second, the establishment of international competition at Under-17 and Under-20 levels.
With scouts from the big European clubs swarming round the South American youth sides, age cheating can be a short cut to a big contract. Knock a few years off a player’s age and he has an unfair physical advantage over rivals and team-mates, allowing him to shine all the more and attract the interest of those scouts.
This is a subject I have touched on before in this space.
I wrote about the current captain of Ecuador, left back Walter Ayovi, who I first saw some 13 years ago playing under a false name and purporting to be three years younger than his genuine age. He was found out, and served a six month suspension before resuming his career.
Brazil won the 2003 World Under-20 title with a midfielder who – it later transpired – was actually closer to 30 at the time.
But a story coming out of the current South American U-20 Championship could be the most bizarre case of them all.
Peru’s hulking centre back Max Barrios was, apparently, one of the youngest players present in the tournament, taking place in Argentina. He was listed as having been born on 15 September 1995. Doubts have arisen, though – and not just about his age. His name and even his nationality are also being called into question.
The problems for Barrios began when Peru met Ecuador in the group phase. Barrios looked familiar to some of the opposing players – and also to people watching the game on TV in Ecuador.
Allegations were made that the Peru number 16 was in fact an Ecuadorian by the name of Juan Carlos Espinoza, nearly 26 years of age, who had played for Liga de Loja while it was in the second division. Former coaches claimed to have identified him, and a formal complaint was made.
Peru immediately took Barrios out of the firing line, withdrawing him from the tournament and sending him home. At the time of writing the case has not been entirely resolved.
It does appear that the centre back has a Peruvian father and an Ecuadorian mother, thus explaining the dual nationalities.
The confusion with Espinoza could merely be a case of mistaken identities, although this theory is being greeted with increasing scepticism.
There could be unfortunate significance in an interview Barrios gave to a Peruvian journalist before the competition, when he was apparently unable to remember his own date of birth, and keen to request that this lapse should not be published.
At any rate, if the name of Barrios had made its way into the notebooks of any European scouts – by no means impossible given his strapping size and interesting performances in Peru’s first three matches – it has surely now been removed.
Indeed, one of the themes of the current tournament is how well some of the European clubs are now carrying out their scouting work in South America.
With three rounds still to go, at the present time it is possible to identify three possible candidates for the title of player of the tournament.
The outstanding one is Colombia playmaker Juan Fernando Quintero. With a wonderful left foot, full of ideas, able to organise a push and run short game and rip opposing defences open with his long passes, Quintero is an old fashioned number 10 in the best tradition.
Bryan Rabello of Chile is also an attacking midfielder, though perhaps a more modern version of the species than Quintero’s retro act. Rabello strikes a superb right-foot set piece and has vision and quality in the tight spaces on the edge of the opposing penalty area.
At the time of writing, Nicolas Lopez of Uruguay is the tournament top scorer. Slight and sleek, his movement is sensational. He can use his pace to operate up front but also likes to drop deep to help set up the play, and then ghost into the box to show off his coolly precise left footed finishing.
All three have been a joy to watch – and all three are already playing their club football in Europe.
Quintero moved to Pescara in Italy after catching the eye with a series of promising displays off the bench for Atletico Nacional in last year’s Copa Libertadores. Sevilla of Spain picked up Rabello after the 2011 South American Under-17 Championship and Lopez managed only a few games for Nacional before Roma swooped.
In all three cases a magnificent young talent was identified early, and – on the evidence of the current tournament – is being nurtured correctly.
Of course, these moves are always a gamble. Living abroad is not for everyone – especially not for all teenagers. There is perennially the problem of careers losing momentum as a result of spending too much time in the reserves, sitting in the stands or being sent out on loan.
Paraguayan midfielder Rodrigo Alborno may well be a case in point. Three years ago, at the age of 16, his booming left foot made an impact for Libertad in the Copa Libertadores.
He went to Inter Milan, has had few opportunities, is currently out on loan to Novara and, on the evidence of the action in Argentina so far, has not made the progress expected of him. He may well have derived more benefit from a prolonged spell in the Libertad first team.
And Max Barrios may well have derived more benefit from not playing in the South American Under-20 Championship.
If the accusations against him are proved correct then there is one line of defence he can hardly use. If he really is nearly 26 then he cannot say that he was not old enough to know better.
Meet Our Bloggers
Philip Micallef is a football writer with almost 40 years of experience. He has worked for News Limited and now SBS. He is a long-time follower of AC Milan.
A journalist with decades of experience on TV and radio, Tony is an expert on all things Italian - including football.