With the Bengaluru-Jamshedpur Indian Super League (ISL) clash on a knife-edge at the Kanteerava Stadium on Sunday, substitute Gourav Mukhi pulled the visitors level with a quality goal. The broadcasters identified him as a 16-year-old, (the age also stated on the ISL website) making him the youngest goalscorer in ISL history.
- Indian Super League (@IndSuperLeague) October 8, 2018
Moments after the goal, reports on social media questioned his age. Was he only 16? One particular report from 2015 cited Mukhi as one of five players found overage in the U-15 sub-junior Jharkhand team. Mukhi, who scored five goals as Jharkhand beat Goa 8-3 in the final, was suspended for one year and the state football federation was fined one lakh rupees (about $1350) as punishment. If he was over 15 years old in 2015, surely he must be older than 16 in 2018?
What is the ISL saying?
An ISL official told ESPN that the league takes data on all players from the AIFF's (All India Football Federation) central database, just like any other tournament or championship. "It seems like the central database should have red-flagged him during registration this season, but didn't," said the official. "It is the AIFF that needs to look into this, and I hope there would be some course correction."
An AIFF official told ESPN that Mukhi had given a written undertaking in 2015 clarifying that his year of birth is 1999 and not 2002 as originally submitted.
This might also explain why he wasn't considered for selection to the 2017 U-17 World Cup despite his prolific goal-scoring, a tournament where the Indian team selection had already sparked a conversation about age discrepancies in Indian football. This episode suggests the malaise isn't gone from Indian football just yet.
Jamshedpur FC's media manager Souptikk Daas told Scroll that the allegations are "all very speculative."
"We needn't react to each and every story that's out there," he said. "He has the proper documents. He went abroad for the pre-season training, so his passport and other ID proofs have the same age. If there was anything wrong, it would have been set right then itself."
On Tuesday, the AIFF issued a statement* saying: "...Mukhi who had earlier given a declaration that his DOB (date of birth) was 04/05/1999 has now submitted documents...referring that his DOB is 04/05/2002" and that the discrepancies will be referred to the relevant authorities for further action."
Why the debate is a shame
The debate about his actual age probably took a bit of the sheen off a fine performance. "For the last three weeks, all we have been saying about his thoughts -- focus, training, and what do you dream about? Goals," Cahill told ISL after full time, with his arm around the youngster.
"This is the best moment of your life," @Tim_Cahill to tonight's goal scorer Gourav Mukhi.
- Indian Super League (@IndSuperLeague) October 7, 2018
Mukhi has been one of Jamshedpur's in-form players in pre-season, and his goal capped off a week where seven Indians registered their names on the ISL scoresheet, including 19-year-old Pranjal Bhumij of Mumbai City, and Mukhi himself cancelled out 20-year-old Nishu Kumar's screamer for Bengaluru FC about 36 minutes before his goal.
The rising confidence, evident in the goal scored by ISL debutant Rana Gharami of Delhi Dynamos earlier in the week, is perhaps an inevitable fallout of the change in rules about fielding five foreigners as opposed to six, brought in during the 2017-18 season. It also comes around at a time that the Indian national team, has been consistently fielding younger players. Coach Stephen Constantine's India probables that meet for the upcoming friendly against China on October 13, have 13 players out of 29 who are 23 and under.
It is important to address the broader issue of age discrepancy in Indian football, and just as vital to rectify errors in players' ages at the earliest, however high-profile the tournaments where they take place. And while we are at it, let's return the title of the ISL's youngest scorer to the rightful holder -- Chennaiyin FC left-back Jerry Lalrinzuala, 18 years and 124 days when he scored against FC Goa in a madcap 5-4 win for the latter back in 2016.
*This story has been updated to reflect AIFF's statement.