The race for who becomes Nigeria’s next substantive number one took an interesting turn a few days ago when Super Eagles goalkeeper Maduka Okoye completed his move to Dutch club Sparta Rotterdam.
Starring in the Eredivisie will surely add more to his credibility than struggling in the German third-tier. That move should stand the youngster in good stead in his burgeoning rivalry with Francis Uzoho, who also switched Spain’s Deportivo La Coruna for Cyprus’ Apoel Nicosia hours ago.
It is also pleasing to know that the country that produced great goalies like Emmanuel Okala, Joe Erico, Alloysius Agu, and Ike Shorunmu, among others, is not lacking in young goalkeeping talents.
While it is true that the Super Eagles have struggled to find a top-quality goalkeeper in recent years, aside from Carl Ikeme, it is not true that it has always been a problem.
The truth is, Nigeria have produced some of Africa’s finest gloves-men over the ages and Soccernet.ng’s Imhons Erons here ranks the most brilliant ten of the lot.
Ike Shorunmu had been in and around the national team since 1992, narrowly missing out on the party to Nigeria’s first-ever World Cup appearance in the United States in 1994.
He quickly shrugged off that disappointment and was a member of the squad that finished fourth at the 1995 King Fahd Cup – his first major tournament for Nigeria.
After understudying Peter Rufai for so many years, Shorunmu was set to be the Super Eagles’ first choice at the 1998 FIFA World Cup, but injuries, unfortunately, shattered his dreams.
He wasn’t one to be defeated, though, and when it appeared as if it was over for him in the national team, he bounced back stunningly to make the twilight of his international career his best years.
He was 33 when he helped the Super Eagles to a runners-up spot at Ghana-Nigeria 2000, where Cameroon edged the co-hosts to the title on penalties.
The following edition in Mali, Shorunmu added a bronze medal to his trophy cabinet before representing Nigeria at the World Cup proper that summer – fulfilling an eight-year dream.
One goalkeeper who enjoyed success at both the club level and the national team is current Super Eagles goalkeeper coach, Alloysius Agu.
Agu earned his first national team call-up in 1988, and his shot-stopping qualities quickly made him indispensable.
In no time, the Lagos-born shot-stopper established himself as the Eagles’ number one, playing in goal at both the 1990 and 1992 African Nations Cup tournaments and claiming one silver and one bronze medals.
Agu was also a member of Nigeria’s gold-winning squad at Tunisia ’94, but coach Clemens Westerhof preferred Peter Rufai to him in goal throughout the tournament.
The rivalry between the duo was as healthy as it could be. Still, Agu called time on his international career shortly after the 1994 FIFA World Cup in the United States, where Rufai remained the undisputed first-choice.
At club level, Agu featured for clubs in Belgium, the Netherlands, and in Turkey, where he finally drew the curtain on a very productive career in 2006.
Wilfred Agbonavbare began his goalkeeping career at 16 years of age, playing in the local league for the New Nigerian Bank FC and later for Gboko-based BCC Lions.
It was at BCC Lions that his excellent performances earned him a move to Spanish side Rayo Vallecano in 1990.
At the international level, Willy was the first-choice goalie of the Nigerian team that crashed out at the group stage of the 1983 FIFA World Youth Championships in Mexico.
While he played second fiddle to Peter Rufai for most of his time with the Eagles, he, however, made this list because of his exploits at the club level.
Between 1990 and 1996, the 1994 African Cup of Nations winner played in 177 matches for Rayo Vallecano, 76 of which came in Spain’s La Liga.
Agbonavbare spent his first two seasons in Iberia playing in the Segunda, before becoming an undisputed starter in his second season and leading Rayo to promotion.
Agbonavbare equally excelled in La Liga, but Los Vallecanos were soon relegated. Still, the Nigerian shot-stopper stayed to help them to another top-flight promotion in 1995.
The Lagos-born safe-hands spent a season at Écija Balompié before calling it quit aged 31, with his place among Nigeria’s most celebrated players in Spain safely secured.
Willy died in 2015, aged 48, after succumbing to cancer.
Inua Lawal Rigogo
For so many years, Inua Rigogo reigned supreme as the most excellent goalkeeper to ever stand between the sticks for the national team.
Famed for his elegant, acrobatic qualities, Inua Rigogo kept the Nigerian goal for almost a decade in the 60s.
Earning national appeal at a time when Nigeria football was growing its milk teeth must have been a challenging task for Rigogo.
But those who saw him play confirm that he was as exceptional in a one-on-one situation as he was brilliant at shot-stopping, making him a tough goalie to beat on any given day.
Rigogo starred in the Lagos ECN side that dominated the Nigerian Challenge Cup in the years post-independence, lifting the trophy in 1965.
But Nigeria’s failure to qualify for the AFCON in the late sixties robbed Rigogo the chance to truly test his gloves against some of Africa’s finest forwards.
Sapele-born Peter Fregene was just 19 years old when he received the call-up to join the national team after consistently excellent displays on the domestic scene for Stationary Stores.
Fregene won the FA Cup with Stationery Stores and later repeated the same feat with Lagos ECN, confirming his rating as the safest pair of hands in the country at the time.
In a career that spanned over three decades, Fregene was Nigeria’s first choice goalie between 1968 and 1971, representing the country at the 1968 Olympic Games.
Following the exit of both Best Ogedengbe and Emmanuel Okala after the 1980 AFCON triumph, Coach Otto Gloria recalled Fregene to the Green Eagles squad for the 1982 African Cup of Nations in Libya, after over a decade out of the national team.
It speaks volumes of the admiration he commanded at the peak of his career that ‘Baba Pinthinho’ was Peter Rufai’s idol while growing up.
Long before Nigeria even existed as a free country, Sam Ibiam and his compatriots like Teslim’ Thunder’ Balogun, Dan Anyiam, and skipper Ewa Henshaw were among the first football heroes that folks in this part ever adored.
In those pre-independence days, the ‘UK Tourists’ (as the national team were then nicknamed) warmed their ways into the hearts of fans as they outfought, out-witted, and out-played opponents from Kakawa to Kaduna, from Calabar to Kaura Namoda, and from Uyo to the United Kingdom.
The undisputed number one of that team was the irresistible Ibiam.
The highly-acclaimed shot-stopper, who is also Nigeria’s first-ever national goalkeeper, kept a clean sheet in the country’s first official international game, a 2-0 defeat of Sierra Leone in Freetown in 1949.
And for the next nine years, he dazzled millions across the continent with his magical hands.
‘The Black Magnet’ died in 2015 at the ripe old age of 90, his name firmly imprinted in the record books forever.
Emmanuel Okala started his career as a striker, but providence saw him transform into a goalkeeper.
The tall shot-stopper played for the Onitsha Red Devils before joining Enugu Rangers in 1971.
Okala’s international career began the following year when he was selected to play in goal for Nigeria in the first-ever game played at the just-completed National Stadium in Lagos.
Okala was in goal for Nigeria when she won the All African Games gold medal in 1973, hosted in Lagos.
With Rangers, Okala’s reputation shot through the roof by winning the Nigeria Premier League and FA Cup double back-to-back in 1974 and 1975.
There was still more to come, though, for the six-foot-plus goalkeeper, who helped Enugu Rangers to glory in the 1977 African Cup Winners’ Cup.
His exploits with Rangers on the continent and his displays as Nigeria claimed AFCON bronze at Ghana ’78, saw him named as Africa’s Best Footballer of the Year in 1978 – the only goalkeeper to date to win the award.
Two years later, the Onitsha-born gloves-man won the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) with the Green Eagles – Nigeria’s first continental honours.
He retired shortly after that tournament, having not featured throughout, but he had done enough to seal his place as one of the country’s most exceptional.
There was a time when IICC Shooting Stars was the most beloved (by many) and the most feared club (by others) in the country, placing the city of Ibadan on the global map of football.
One of the key players who shored up the Oluyole Warrior’s notorious reputation in that era was Anthony Best Ogedengbe.
Ogedengbe was Shooting Stars FC’s number one goalkeeper through most of the greatest and challenging moments of the 1970s.
An excellent goalie with almost no known weaknesses, Ogedengbe won the FA Cup twice, two league titles, and the African Cup Winners Cup once, all within the eight years of his sojourn in the club.
Perhaps the most skilful goalkeeper Nigeria ever had, Ogedengbe was reliable and dependable in goal and equally masterful at finding the back of the opponents’ net during penalty shootouts.
Despite the reputation of Emmanuel Okala as Africa’s Best Player just two years earlier, Brazilian manager Otto Gloria chose Ogedengbe as his first-choice goalkeeper, to the surprise of fans, ahead of Okala during the 1980 Nation’s Cup.
The coach’s decision was vindicated as Ogedengbe conceded just one goal to help Nigeria lift her first-ever AFCON title on home soil.
Ogedengbe, just 25 at the time, was named the championship’s best goalkeeper, making the team of the tournament and securing his legacy for all times.
So many great goalkeepers had featured for the Nigerian national team before Peter Rufai came to the scene, with quite a few of them leaving behind giant-sized shoes.
It was never going to be easy matching their exploits, but Rufai started on a fantastic note.
Rufai was still a teenager when he helped Stationery Stores to the final of the 1981 African Cup Winners’ Cup, and he went one step better by lifting the 1982 Nigeria FA Cup also with the Lagos-based side.
At just 20, he was a member of the coach Festus Onigbinde-led silver-winning Nigerian squad at Ivory Coast 1984 – his first major tournament with the Green Eagles.
Rufai quit the local league shortly after to team up with Benin Republic’s Dragons de l’Oueme.
He was to be one of the stars of a Dream Team that also had the magical Abédi Pelé and Gangbo Bashirou, powering the Dragons to the semi-finals of the 1987 African Cup Winners Cup.
Europe beckoned after that, and from Belgium to the Netherlands, from Portugal to Spain, Rufai made his presence felt.
It was, however, with the national team that the Lagos-born shot-stopper enjoyed his most significant success.
Rufai picked up another AFCON silver medal at Morocco ’88, before being third-time lucky when he conceded just three goals in five games as Nigeria were crowned African champions at Tunisia ’94.
He then bettered every single one of those before him, by helping Nigeria qualify for her first FIFA World Cup appearance at USA ’94, holding his own as an incredible Super Eagles side made it to the knockout rounds.
A series of unforeseen circumstances then projected ‘Dodo Mayana’ back to man the post at France ’98, where Nigeria once again exited the Mundial at the Round of 16.
After 20 years at the summit of the country’s goalkeeping pyramid, Rufai hanged his gloves, sealing his place as the greatest ever goalkeeper in Nigeria’s history.
Well, that was until a certain Vincent Enyeama came into the picture.
He didn’t have the giant-like figure of Emmanuel Okala, the unmistakable aura of Ogedengbe, or the boyish charisma of Peter Rufai.
But Enyeama was no less talented, and he set about re-writing history in the grandest of ways.
First, he won three Nigerian league titles in as many years with Enyimba International FC.
He then introduced himself to the global audience in remarkable fashion when he saved a Paul Scholes thunderbolt on his World Cup debut against England at Korea/Japan 2002.
Two consecutive CAF Champions League triumphs followed (the first of which was also the first for any Nigerian club in history) for the Akwa Ibom-born goalie.
These feats, one could say, placed him miles ahead of the likes of Ike Shorunmu, and within touching distance of Best Ogedengbe and Emmanuel Okala.
Unlike many Nigerian goalies before him who were mere journeymen in Europe, Enyeama won two league titles and two Cup honours in Israel and added the footballer of the Year award in 2009.
He then elevated himself into the elite class that had Ogedengbe and Rufai when he skippered the Super Eagles to her third AFCON title in South Africa.
Enyeama later left them all in his trail when he made his third World Cup finals appearance in 2014, before receiving the Prix Marc-Vivien Foé award for the Best African footballer in France during a brilliant spell at Lille.
His 101 caps for Nigeria also reveal a monstrous consistency never before displayed by any before him.
Best Ogedengbe may have been the most influential goalie Nigeria ever had. Peter Rufai was undoubtedly the finest of his generation.
But let history proclaim it to the hearing of the beautiful ones yet unborn: Vincent Enyeama is the greatest goalkeeper Nigeria has ever had.