Usually, when we read about a young footballer, it’s because of their high levels of potential or exciting style of play, but when 17-year-old Joseph Minala made the news, the story was very different. Minala hadn’t even made his professional debut and wasn’t classed as a wonderkid, but still looked like a decent enough player. He also looked, according to some sources, about twenty years older than he claimed to be.
The Cameroon-born midfielder, who moved to Rome at the tender age of 15, had been snapped up by Lazio in 2013 and was scheduled to make his debut for the club in early 2014 when an African football website made the bold claim that Minala had been lying about his age. He said he was 17 at the time but according to the site’s sources, the alleged teenager was actually in his early forties. Thus, a scandal was born.
The story quickly gained traction as photos of Minala started to circulate around the world and everyone had their opinion on the story. Appearance is a subjective matter, but it’s fair to say that Minala’s mature facial features and imposing physical build gave significant weight to the allegations. He didn’t look like a typical teen, but his defenders argued that some people simply look older than they are.
Minala did manage to make his debut for the club on April 6 of 2014. Meanwhile, the Italian Football Association conducted an investigation. In what was undoubtedly a highly stressful experience for the young African, Minala was taken in for questioning by the league’s federal prosecutor. Fortunately, the investigation ruled in his favour, stating that there was no cause for disciplinary action and that the Cameroonian was indeed 17.
Unfortunately, that’s where the good news ended for Minala, as his career really hasn’t taken off in the years since the scandal. It’s possible that the stress of the event took its toll on the player, who spent the 2014-15 season on loan at Serie B side Bari, scoring three league goals in 18 appearances. The striker was sent off on loan to Latina and Bari again the following year, but failed to make any sort of impact at either club.
In January of 2017, a new loan move beckoned for the 6-foot tall defensive midfielder. This time, he was sent off to another Serie B side, Salernitana, on an extended deal with an option to buy. He spent one and a half seasons with the club, scoring four goals in 52 league appearances, but was sent back to Lazio. He hasn’t made a single appearance so far this season, and with the likes of Sergej Milinković-Savić, Milan Badelj, and Marco Parolo ahead of him in the pecking order, it’s doubtful that his Lazio career will ever really take off.
It’s a sad situation for a player who made a couple of appearances for Cameroon’s U23 side and was tipped for big things in his earlier years. Now, at the age of 22, there’s still time for Minala to turn things around. His tough tackling, aggressive style of play could be a strong asset to a lower league side, but there’s also a chance he’ll be best remembered for a crazy controversy he never asked for or deserved.
Age fraud has been a real issue in football, especially in Africa, with players like Taribo West, Nwankwo Kanu, & Jay Jay Okocha being accused of lying about their age, but it’s a real shame to see an innocent player unfairly accused, just as he was taking his first tentative steps into the game. Let’s hope for his sake that Joseph Minala can get his career back on track.