While Nigerians ought to guide against over-excitement, their goalkeeping situation may be looking up again after years of uncertainty
There’s always a certain grimace that accompanies a goalkeeper winning a man of the match award, an expression that lies in the sentiment your shot-stopper shouldn’t have too much to do during the 90 minutes.
Manchester United’s David De Gea is not alien to this, neither is Atletico Madrid’s Jan Oblak. In his prime, the Spaniard’s incredible shot-stopping was a joy to behold while Diego Simeone owes a lot of his team’s success over the years to the Slovenian superstar.
For Nigerians, it was Vincent Enyeama. The undoubted belief in the ex-Super Eagles captain wasn’t out of place with the retired goalie often nullifying opponents and, at times, looking unbeatable.
His incredible showing against Argentina at the 2010 World Cup immediately comes to mind, where he especially denied Lionel Messi multiple times and prevented a Super Eagles humiliation.
While it was always going to be an uphill task replacing the former Lille man, who hit a century of caps for the West African nation, few anticipated it would take so long.
Carl Ikeme looked the part in the mid-2010s, offering hope that the three-time African champions didn’t have to anticipate too long, but illness — he was diagnosed with acute leukaemia in July 2017 — and retirement in 2018 meant Gernot Rohr had to restart his search.
Just as the former Wolverhampton Wanderers’ icon offered an immediate solution after Enyeama, Francis Uzoho appeared to do likewise, after a pretty commendable debut against Argentina in November 2017.
Nigeria had fallen behind 2-0, with Daniel Akpeyi’s panicky misjudgement in picking the ball outside the area and subsequent lapse from the resulting free-kick not going unnoticed. To date, fans have never truly trusted the goalie between the sticks.
In truth, Uzoho didn’t have much to do after replacing the Kaizer Chiefs man against the South Americans, but his handling and perceived calmness inside his box well received by supporters. He was forced into a pretty routine save with seven minutes remaining.
However, that joy was short-lived. The then-teenager’s composure and assuredness gave for anxiousness between the sticks.
Criticism soon followed but Rohr didn’t back down and kept faith in the Nwangele-born shot-stopper.
The German’s perceived bias for the 22-year-old has never gone away and despite a brief dalliance with Ikechukwu Ezenwa and Akpeyi returning as first-choice at the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations, the goalkeeping situation appeared complicated.
Perhaps Uzoho’s erratic form was expected. His youth meant there was going to be growing pains and it’s a process that may still occur under incumbent Maduka Okoye.
The Sparta Rotterdam goalkeeper replaced Uzoho against Brazil in a friendly in October 2019 after the latter tore ankle ligaments in that 1-1 draw vs the Selecao and subsequently benefitted from Akpeyi’s injury at Chiefs.
Reduced pressure allowed for smoother integration into the side and Rohr declared him the new number one in February.
“No. 1 is Maduka. These decisions, I take them with [goalkeeper coach Alloy Agu] because he is a specialist for goalkeeper training,” Rohr told ESPN . “Myself and Alloy, we agreed that it’s actually Maduka.
“We have the experienced [Daniel Akpeyi] doing good matches with this club in South Africa. We have the young [Francis Uzoho] coming back after injury, but he has to play also now not only on the bench. We have also [Matthew Yakubu]. There’s a good potential now because this position was a big problem for us, so we have more now.”
Rohr’s candour in equally recognising the issues in recent years made for interesting reading, but has Okoye now solved the five-year crisis since Enyeama and Ikeme’s retirement definitively?
In truth, you’d forgive supporters for not being overly optimistic, fearing another false dawn between the sticks. Having said that, the 21-year-old’s debut season in the Eredivisie offered promise in the youngster’s maiden campaign in top flight football.
The acquisition from Fortuna Dusseldorf largely thrived in 2020/21, making 28 appearances and keeping 10 clean sheets — only three shot-stoppers had higher.
This is impressive because he began the campaign as Benjamin van Leer’s understudy — an unused substitute in five of the opening six games — after Henk Fraser revamped De Kasteelheren’s goalkeeping position.
Interestingly, though, his underlying numbers don’t measure up among other goalkeepers in the league, so it remains to be seen whether this year was a one-off.
Regardless of those doubts, Okoye’s performances, especially towards the end of the campaign, saw him voted the club’s best player. In his debut season in top flight football and a new league no less, this feat shouldn’t be watered down.
Transfer links to Ajax have surfaced , a move that shouldn’t be ruled out with Andre Onana expected to sign for Ligue 1 side Olympique Lyon in the coming days.
Whether or not the 21-year-old is ready for such a move given his limited experience of football at the highest level is uncertain, but it gives credence to the belief that he’s on the up and improving.
Indeed, Nigeria could be a beneficiary of Okoye’s emergence.
On the rare occasions where the man between the sticks is named player of the season, eyebrows are raised. Not this time, though, as Nigerians hope the growing goalkeeper becomes a long-term solution to the Super Eagles’ Enyeama bugbear.