Former US Women’s national team star, Julie Foudy, once said If there is one certainty in soccer, it is this: ‘The quickest road to becoming a winning soccer team is to have a great goalkeeper.
It was a statement backed by arguably the greatest manager of all time Sir Alex Ferguson, who said, ‘a great goalkeeper is worth 15 points over the course of a season’.
The two statements are true as every successful team in the past and present had a top goalkeeper as the last line of defence.
Nigeria have been blessed with some great goalkeepers with the likes of Best Ogendegbe, Peter Rufai and Vincent Enyeama all playing a vital role in the country’s three continental triumphs.
However, in recent years, the goalkeeping position has been a major concern. In fact, since Carl Ikeme had to quit in 2016 due to Leukaemia, the Super Eagles have not had a permanent number one.
Ikeme played his last game for Nigeria in the opening 2018 World Cup qualifying win over Zambia. A few months later, he revealed the sad news of his cancer diagnosis.
Following his retirement, the search for a new number one began, and Ikechukwu Ezenwa was given for the remaining qualifiers.
But despite Nigeria qualifying easily from a group that had Algeria and Cameroon, Ezenwa never really convinced fans, and he was dropped at the World Cup.
Francis Uzoho was chosen as his replacement, and while he had a lot of potentials, Nigerians were not too convinced with his performance at the 2018 World Cup.
A year later was the Africa Cup of Nations and this time, Daniel Akpeyi was in goal. Although Nigeria reached the Semi-Finals in Egypt, Akpeyi did not cover himself in glory as he was jittery every time, and was at fault for Algeria’s winner in the semi-finals.
Shortly after AFCON, Uzoho was picked for the friendly games against Ukraine and Brazil, but there was also a new name-Maduka Okoye.
The 20-year-old was born in Germany to Nigerian parents, and he made his debut in the clash against Brazil. He came on as a substitute for Uzoho who went off with a knee injury that kept him out for over six months.
One of Uzoho or Okoye is expected to be the number one choice for the goalkeeping position in the longterm as they are both composed and younger than Akpeyi.
But who’s likely to come out on top between the two?
Both keepers changed clubs last week, and it could decide who gets the number one spot in the national team.
Okoye joined Sparta Rotterdam from Fortuna Dusseldorf while Uzoho left Deportivo to sign for Apoel Nicosia in Cyprus.
On paper, the German-born goalkeeper holds the edge over the former Elche shot-stopper because he moved to a more competitive league.
However, it’s not given that Okoye will be Rotterdam’s number one keeper as he’ll have to battle Benjamin Van Leer and Tim Coremans who are the other goalkeepers at the club.
It’s also important to note that Okoye has no top-flight football experience and he spent his time at Fortuna Dusseldorf with the club’s second team.
And while playing for Fortuna Dusseldorf II in the German fourth tier, his performances in games were not impressive, conceding 14 goals in 26 games and keeping just two clean sheets.
These stats are worrying and do not speak well of Okoye’s abilities as a goalkeeper. Although stats are not a true representation of a player’s performances, Okoye never made a single appearance for Fortuna’s first team even though he was with the squad three times last season.
Uzoho meanwhile may also have his issues, but the 21-year-old has enough games under his belt than Maduka Okoye.
The Cyprus First Division may not hold the same appeal as the Eredivisie. Still, the former Deportivo keeper is assured of regular playing time and also get to feature in the Europa League.
Aside from guaranteed playing time and a chance to feature in Europe, Uzoho also has the experience of playing against African teams compared to Okoye who grew up in Germany.
Even though having his football education in Germany gives him an advantage over his rival, he has not been tested at the highest level.
Ahead of last year’s AFCON qualifier against the Benin Republic- a game Uzoho missed due to injury, I asked Super Eagles manager, Gernot Rohr, if Okoye’s lack of experience will play a role in his decision- and he said yes.
Although Rohr admitted he’s one for the future, he is not ready to thrust Okoye into action due to the pressure that comes with it.
And given the conditions attached to his new contract, it’s hard to see Rohr taking a gamble on a player who has no top-flight experience.
The 20-year-old even admitted that he’s not the immediate favourite for that role as he’s still young- although he wants his rival to take notice of him.
“I am not feeling pressured, I am still young, there is a lot of time, but the other goalkeepers should notice me now, have made the next step am working hard to put the other guys, my brothers, under pressure, we will see what the coach is thinking,” he said in a radio interview.
Okoye may still win the goalkeeping war, but for now, Uzoho is winning the battle.