“Goalkeeper is a very influential position, and that is becoming recognised now. If you think about it, any error that we make can be fatal for the team. It can lead to a goal and cause a defeat,” Alisson Becker.
The goalkeeping position has been a problem for Gernot Rohr since he was appointed as Nigeria’s national team manager.
Rohr took up responsibilities as the Super Eagles coach in 2016, and between then and now, he has used five different goalkeepers.
The German tactician was denied the talent of Vincent Enyeama, who retired just before Rohr came in due to a disagreement with former Super Eagles manager Sunday Oliseh.
But despite the absence of Enyeama, Rohr had a good goalkeeper in Carl Ikeme. However, Ikeme’s time in the squad was cut short prematurely after being diagnosed with Leukaemia, which eventually forced him to retire.
It was where the search for a permanent number one began. Ikechukwu Ezenwa was first offered the chance to stake a claim and was in goal for the 2018 World Cup qualifiers.
However, he failed to convince many and was replaced by Francis Uzoho at the 2018 World Cup in Russia. But Uzoho did not impress either and lost his place to Daniel Akpeyi after the tournament.
Akpeyi was handed the responsibility at the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations, but he came in for criticism following Nigeria’s loss to Algeria in the semi-finals. Shortly after the nations cup, Uzoho was reinstated, but a new name also came up, and that was Maduka Okoye.
Okoye received his first call-up for Nigeria’s international friendly game against Ukraine in 2019, but he was on the bench all through.
However, he made his debut in the friendly against Brazil, coming on as a substitute for Uzoho, who suffered a knee injury.
But despite the potential, fans were not convinced Okoye had what it takes to be Nigeria’s number one as he was still in the German fourth tier then.
And with Uzoho out for the long term, Akpeyi returned for Nigeria’s two opening 2021 Afcon qualifiers against the Benin Republic and Lesotho.
However, Okoye fortunes turned around both at the club and international level last year. Firstly, the 21-year-old joined Dutch Eredivisie side Sparta Rotterdam from Fortuna Dusseldorf II, while he was the goalkeeper in all of Nigeria’s four games last year.
And these two moves have convinced Rohr, who has named the German-born goalkeeper as Super Eagles number one ahead of the final Afcon qualifiers.
“No. 1 is Maduka.” These decisions, I take them with [goalkeeper coach Alloy Agu] because he is a specialist for goalkeeper training.
“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.
But it looks like a rushed decision. While Okoye is truly the best of the lots, he has not done enough to show he deserves the spot.
The 21-year-old has featured in 20 games across all competitions for Sparta this season, but he has conceded a whopping 32 goals, which is not impressive for a goalkeeper.
While it’s a big boost that he is playing in a top European League, his performances have not been different from when he was in the German fourth tier.
Although a goalkeeper is only as good as his defence, Okoye saves percentage does not instil confidence. The former Fortuna Dusseldorf goalkeeper averages 2.4 saves per game, which is just 61%
He also has only just five clean sheets this season. His performance in the four games he played for Nigeria last year was not convincing either.
Okoye conceded in the friendly games against Algeria and Tunisia, while he let in four goals against Sierra Leone in the first leg of the Afcon qualifier.
While the whole team should take the blame for the capitulation against Sierra Leone, Okoye could have done better to prevent some of the goals.
Nonetheless, it’s important to state that this is not a knock on Okoye’s ability as a goalkeeper. However, it will only be fair for Rohr to keep the number one position open.
Uzoho looked like the one to challenge Okoye, and he had a good run before the injury. Although it has been a long road, the former Elche goalkeeper is back playing again.
He is currently with Apoel Nicosia, although his performance hasn’t been impressive either, with just three clean sheets in eight games.
Okoye deserves his spot in the Super Eagles team as he plays in one of Europe’s top leagues, but it’s also important Rohr keeps competition open.
As Alisson Becker said in the quote at the beginning of this article, the goalkeeping position is a very important one, so Rohr should not rush to make hasty decisions regarding the Super Eagles first-choice goalkeeper.