Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

An old question: Doubts keep arising about true age of Winnipeg's under-17 soccer star

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Just how old is Manitoba soccer phenom Ali Musse?

Musse plays on Canada's national under-17 team and has already competed internationally with a passport showing him born in Somalia in 1996.

But both the Canadian and Manitoba soccer associations at one time believed Musse was born in 1994. There's been online chatter about Musse's age, and some people say they recall he was listed as born in 1994 when he started playing in Winnipeg.

The public school system won't talk about Musse because of privacy laws, but the Department of Education says students in the grades in which Musse was enrolled between the fall of 2008 and spring of 2012 would have been born in 1994.

Why does it matter?

The Canadian Soccer Association would be in enormous trouble internationally if it fielded a player who was too old to be eligible for that competitive group.

Senior local soccer people argue there's no way a national coach would ever put anyone on the pitch if his or her age was in any doubt, but the fact questions are even being asked points to how difficult it can be for refugees who arrive in Canada with little or no personal documentation.

"We have no comment other than to tell you I have personally seen his Canadian passport with a birthdate of 1996," said Hector Vergara, executive director of the Manitoba Soccer Association.

"We heard the same story before (questioning Musse's age). But I can tell you that the CSA and CONCACAF check the passports of players for competitions and I can confirm that he has a Canadian passport with a birthdate year of 1996," Vergara said.

CONCACAF governs international soccer within North America, Central America and the Caribbean, and it's within CONCACAF's jurisdiction that Musse has already played internationally.

The Vancouver Whitecaps of Major League Soccer said Musse presented a passport showing he was born in 1996 when he attended their youth development camp two summers ago.

Officials with the CSA did not respond to voice mail and email interview requests.

Attempts to reach Musse's family by phone were unsuccessful, and he did not respond to interview requests sent to his Facebook page.

His local coach, Eduardo Badescu, had a lot to say, however.

Badescu said Musse has spent the last six years sitting in class beside, and playing soccer with, people two years older.

That's one of the ways refugees survive and adapt, said Badescu, Musse's coach with Winnipeg's WSA (World Soccer Academy) team, which plays in the Premier Development League, with teams in central Canada and the northern and midwest U.S. for players in their teens and early 20s.

"Sometimes, they try to hide who they are," said Badescu. "His parents wanted him to be with his friends, so they put him in that class."

A member of the local soccer community says as early as 2007, Musse was listed as being born in 1994 while playing competitive soccer for the Winnipeg South End United district club against players a year older.

The source asked for anonymity because he still has children playing soccer in Winnipeg. Musse's soccer contemporaries are now 19 or 20, he said.

"To go after a kid like Ali is just embarrassing," said Badescu, who challenged anyone questioning Musse's age to come forward and speak publicly.

"He's 100 per cent '96," Badescu declared. "Do you think the national team coach is not going to ask for a birth certificate?

"Do you think a national team coach would take a chance to embarrass a whole country?"

Musse has played U-17 internationally for Canada, but is not a starter. "He was coming off the bench -- no one was going to take a chance" if there was any doubt about his age, said Badescu, who has seen both Musse's passport and birth certificate.

Badescu said he does not know what Musse's family told or showed the school when he first enrolled.

Musse was two years younger than his classmates throughout high school, though he was tall for his age, Badescu said. That ultimately hurt him academically, said the coach.

"His birth certificate is clear, 1996. He's still a kid," said Badescu, who said he did the same thing when he came to Canada via Italy as a refugee from Romania, passing himself off as two years older than he was.

However, documents provided by anonymous sources to the Free Press show that both the MSA and the CSA at one time believed Ali was born in 1994.

A report by Ray Clark, director of coaching and player development with the CSA, shows Ali Musse was rated highly coming out of a national youth evaluation camp in Brossard, Que., in July 2007 -- and he was listed as being born in 1994.

Similarly, an email sent to Musse and other top youth players Sept. 16, 2009, by MSA technical director Rob Gale about upcoming national evaluation camps in Winnipeg lists Musse as being born in 1994.

When Musse was evaluated in Quebec in the summer of 2007, said Badescu, "He was 11 going on 12," holding his own against boys who were 13 or 14.

Musse started Grade 9 in Kelvin High School in 2008 and graduated from Glenlawn Collegiate in June 2012, after attending the elite soccer academy at Glenlawn that MSA operates in partnership with Louis Riel School Division.

FIPPA -- the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act -- forbids schools from releasing students' personal information, said LRSD superintendent Duane Brothers.

Brothers said LRSD would not require a birth certificate, passport, or any other age documentation when accepting a transfer from Winnipeg School Division or any other school division under the schools-of-choice provision. The student's personal information would have been processed by the sending division when the student first started school, and when accepting a student transferring under schools of choice, LRSD would go by the grade level provided to it by the other division.

WSD declined to discuss individual students.

However, the division said new Canadians are placed in a regular class with their age group, though they may also attend English-as-an-additional-language classes, said a WSD official.

Mustafa Ibrahim, former president of the Somali Canadian Society of Manitoba, said many refugees arrive with limited or no documentation. "It happens a lot," he said.

Whatever documents are presented, or whatever age is given when entering Canada, that's the age their Canadian-issued papers would reflect: "It's the documents you use when you arrive here that you use at school," he said.

Ibrahim, who is also involved in local soccer, said it is possible to obtain a birth certificate later from the home country in some circumstances.

An official with the Department of Education said it's standard practice that a student entering Grade 9 would be 14 no later than Dec. 31 of that school year, and a student entering Grade 12 would be 17 no later than Dec. 31. In both those cases, Musse as a 1996 child would have been 12 and 15 respectively on Dec. 31 when he was in grades 9 and 12.

Vergara would not discuss Musse's having played with older youth.

"Each club deals with age-advancing differently, so it's really irrelevant to the age," said Vergara.

Winnipeg South End United, Musse's home club while he played in competitive youth soccer, declined to comment.

"WSEU has no comment and we suggest you direct your inquiries to the Manitoba Soccer Association and the Canadian Soccer Association regarding any youth involved in soccer, including the provincial program, regional training program, Glenlawn Collegiate, national training program and camps, and age advancement," WSEU president Brett Carter wrote in an email.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 20, 2013 A6

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