The man between the sticks got the sticks when Tunisia shockingly eliminated Nigeria at the 2021 AFCON in Cameroon.
That it was Tunisia wasn’t the shocker, as the Carthage Eagles are one of Africa’s best teams, but on the back of Nigeria’s strong group phase and the nature of the defeat, the disappointments were in line. And majority of the sticks and mudslinging went the way of one man, Maduka Okoye.
The Sparta Rotterdam goalkeeper could have dealt much better with what beat him on the day but mistakes often determine who emerges on the losing side in sport. When you’re a Nigerian, you don’t want to be at the centre of such mistakes.
Okoye’s costly error against Tunisia quickly raised doubts about his quality again, and an unofficial inquiry into how he became a Super Eagles goalkeeper was set by fans. He got everything a man under pressure would not like to see but if his recent showings are anything to go by, he has put those days behind.
Against NEC Nijmegen again on Saturday, Okoye shone greatly for Sparta Rotterdam, and helped his team get a vital draw away from home, and also kept a clean sheet in the process.
He was faced with five shots and none managed to beat him. It was his third clean sheet in four games. For the goalkeeper of a team struggling to survive, this is important and is excellent for confidence.
He was again the man-of-the-match for his team on a day they were played out of the park, having just three shots against the opposition’s total of 18.
The Big Man For Sparta Rotterdam
Against Vitesse Arnhem, Okoye was the difference for his team as they were on the brink of stealing vital three points away from home before fans’ trouble led to the suspension of the game.
The game that followed against Willem II also saw the former Fortuna Düsseldorf goalkeeper produce a faultless performance. While he was beaten twice against PSV, his performance in the game was hailed by many.
He helped Sparta Rotterdam snatch three important points against Go Ahead Eagles just more than a week ago.
On Saturday against NEC, he kept his fifth clean sheet of the season (practically his sixth with Vitesse’s) and was by far the man of the match in the game.
His rich vein of form has lifted the team to just two points below safety, and with two games outstanding.
Time To Be Excellent For Nigeria
Okoye has been rated by Sparta Rotterdam manager Henk Fraser as one of the best young goalkeepers in Europe, but it’s high time he controlled and applied a firmer grip on his spot with the Super Eagles.
He’s yet to convince many, probably himself included, of his status as the best Nigeria has at the moment.
Based on how he got into the national team, which many argue isn’t premised on fairness, there’ll always be calls for his back after every shoddy display. It’s high time Okoye replicated his club form with Nigeria, make the role his and stamp an authority as the team’s number 1.
Successive clean sheets are expected to be a perfect morale booster for the 22 year-old and these are the moments that define the careers of players in national colours. He could be the difference if push comes to shove and he has to respond adequately and in a timely manner.
A replication of his strong form and performances in Super Eagles colours will erase many doubts about his readiness for the spot. That the clashes are against Ghana also mean Okoye has very little room for error.
His passing must improve, as just 36% of his attempted passes against NEC were successful. His kicks also must take the team away from troubled spots and his command of area has to be as bold as his stature.
He’s in the mood for Ghana, going by his recent form and must further prove that it’s the perfect frame of mind to play his role in Nigeria’s march to the World Cup. May the sticks of old not be hurled again.