Legendary Spanish goalkeeper, Iker Casillas once said ‘most kids dream of scoring the perfect goal, I’ve always dreamt of stopping it’

In modern football, Attackers receive virtually all of the attention after a match or a trophy-laden campaign so much that the podiums of football’s biggest Awards rarely has the spotlight focused on goalkeepers. Nevertheless, very few African nations have been blessed with a clutch of great pair of safe hands between the sticks. From the days of Best Ogedegbe, who was in goal for the Green Eagles as Nigeria won its Maiden African Cup of Nations (AFCON) Title in 1980 to the days of Vincent Enyeama, who after leading Enyimba to consecutive CAF Champions League Titles, kept eleven consecutive clean sheets in the French Ligue 1 for Lille in the 2013/14 season. It was just 114 minutes short of the all-time record. Nigeria has always had greatness in goal.

When Enyeama played his last game for the Super Eagles in 2015, Victor Osimhen was yet to score the first of his 10 goals at the U-17 World Cup in Chile, Alex Iwobi hadn’t made his Arsenal senior debut and the Late Stephen Keshi was still Nigeria’s manager. Since Gernot Rohr became Super Eagles’ boss, seven goalkeepers have manned the goal, in a bid to Stake their claim as Nigeria’s número uno.

Carl Ikeme looked like the answer until he was sadly diagnosed with Acute Leukaemia in 2017. The Quintet of Daniel Akpeyi, Ikechukwu Ezenwa, Dele Alampasu, Dele Ajiboye and Francis Uzoho have all took turns vying for the first choice Shirt. The latest debutant is 20 year old german-born Maduka Okoye, who made his international debut after replacing the injured Uzoho in a 1-1 draw against Brazil on 13 October 2019.

To further decipher Nigeria’s goalkeeping crisis, one has to take a look at the AFCON 2019 campaign. The trio of Akpeyi, Ezenwa and Uzoho all made their AFCON debuts. It came as a surprise to many because National teams all over the world are known to have a standout goalkeeper playing throughout a tournament. That was a clear indication that Rohr is yet to be convinced by any. With all due respect to Ezenwa, who plies his trade in Nigeria with FC Heartland and Akpeyi — despite coming under scathing criticisms for a largely unconvincing display at the 2019 AFCON — displaced legendary South African shot stopper Itumeleng Khune as Kaizer Chiefs first choice, the time has come for the Super Eagles to have a recognised youthful starter. Uzoho, in his first month in the Protathlima Cyta (Cyprus Top division), kept three clean sheets in five games. Unfortunately, a knee injury would end his season abruptly as he spent the next five months on the sidelines on loan at Omonia Nicosia from Spanish side Deportivo La Coruña. Sparta Rotterdam’s new man Okoye, featured in fourteen games and kept two clean sheets in the Regionalliga (German’s fourth Tier) for Fortuna Düsseldorf II before making his move to the Eredivisie side.

Born in the Rheine-Ruhr Region of Düsseldorf to a Nigerian father and German mother, Okoye joined Borussia Mönchengladbach’s youth set-up as a 9 year old and spent the next eight years of his development at Bayer Leverkusen’s youth team, alongside three-time recipient of the Bundesliga player of the month award, Kai Havertz. His breakthrough would be in the 2017/18 season as a Düsseldorf U-19 player, debuting under U-19 head coach Sinisa Suker. On 13 August 2017, he played the entire 90 minutes in a 4-0 win against RW Oberhausen, aged 17 years, 11 months and 16 days. After his 18th birthday, Düsseldorf II Manager Taskin Aksoy named Okoye in his starting line-up. This would be his professional debut, conceding twice in a 2-0 loss at the Stadion am Zoo (Home of Wuppertaler SV). The youngster went on to play 34 games as a Düsseldorf player, keeping Eight clean sheets in two-and-a-half Seasons.

In the 2019/20 season, the Nigerian played a total of 1170 minutes in the Regionalliga. According to footystats.org, he concedes an average of 1.85 goals/90 minutes, with a clean sheet ratio of 23%. Considering the fact that he played for a Düsseldorf II side that has a 33% win ratio and are 33 points behind League leaders Rödinghausen, Nigerian fans shouldn’t let the Jury out yet. Standing at 1.97m (6 ft 6 in), Okoye is a towering figure whose physical attributes, aerial presence and grip are his clear assets. There has been a lot of criticism centred on the height and age of some of the current crop of shot stoppers. Akpeyi celebrates his 34th birthday in August, Ezenwa turns 32 soon and there has always been doubts about his handling of shots under pressure. The popular opinion is that Rohr woke up one morning and decided to invite the 20 year old to the Eagles camp with little knowledge about his career. In defence of the franco-german manager, that assumption is wrong. Rohr has been considering calling up the Ex-Leverkusen youngster to the National team since Nigeria’s 4-2 victory against Argentina in 2017. Ironically, Uzoho made his International debut in that game as an U-19 player of Deportivo la Coruña B team. There was no public outcry, the question is — why have fans not given Okoye the same treatment? Earlier in 2019, Former Nigeria U-23 Head coach Imama Amapakabo, invited the german-born goaltender to the U-23 camp for an Olympics qualifier but clubs commitments held him back. In an exclusive interview, Rohr told Sports Extra that he is shifting to the youngster as he looks to solve the goalkeeping crisis.

My aim is to improve all departments in the team. The most important ones are the goalkeeper and then the goal scorer, they are two challenges now, we’ve been working on it for a long time.

Gernot Rohr in a 2019 Interview with Sports Extra

Fast-forward twelve months and Nigeria boasts of a forward line of the Most Expensive African player in waiting, Victor Osimhen. Leicester City’s ‘super sub’, Kelechi Iheanacho and the top scorer of the 2019/20 Eredivisie season, Cyriel Dessers. The ‘goal scoring’ challenge Rohr talked about a year ago looks solved, it’s time to solve the ‘goal stopping’ challenge. Let’s be honest, Rohr over achieved in Egypt, the Super Eagles had one leg in the Final against Senegal until Riyad Mahrez happened.

Henk van Stee, Sparta Rotterdam’s Director of Football, described Okoye as a ‘great talent’ that’ll strengthen the team. The Dutch declared :

With Maduka, we bring in a great talent, who has lots of potential. He was in the interest of several clubs from different countries, but he believes he can take the next step at Sparta. We believe he can be of value to this club and we are happy that he signed here.

Henk van Stee speaking to the media on Okoye’s unveiling

Okoye who was equally beaming with smiles told Omasports : “I am very happy to join this club, Sparta Rotterdam. Its a very good opportunity to take my career to the next level. Now I am ready for the big stage“.

The Eredivisie side have a strong Nigerian history. The trio of Ahmed Musa, Sani Keita and Dele Adeleye all played at the Het Kasteel stadium in the past. Okoye becomes the fourth Nigerian to put on the famous Red and White stripes Jersey.

Can he break into Sparta Rotterdam’s first eleven?

Don’t get it twisted, there’s a clear presence of established stoppers in Rotterdam. Okoye joins the trio of Benjamin van Leer, Tim Coremans and Michael Fabrie. Coremans was en-route the first choice position but a Knee injury in June ruled him out of the first half of the 2020/21 Eredivisie season, which kicks off on 12 September 2020. He will be out till March 2021 at least. Fabrie like Okoye, is a new signing. The former Ajax man didn’t make a single appearance for the Dutch champions last season and Van Leer is a product of the Rotterdam academy. Interestingly, Okoye is the only Rotterdam goalkeeper with an International cap. That is undoubtedly a bragging right for the Nigerian. Off the field, he’s represented by Prime Sportbusiness. A Dutch sports agency with a host of stars like Tottenham’s Michel Vorm, Benfica’s Tyronne Ebuehi and 2014 FIFA World Cup Bronze medalist, Jordy Clasie. Nobody’s saying its going to be a walk in the park for Okoye, neither is it going to impossible.

Football is a game of moments and taking the chance you get by the scruff of the neck. We all look forward to Okoye making good use of the opportunities. Can he eclipse the feats of Peter Rufai and his back-up Alloysius Agu, who both left a lasting impression in the minds of Dutch fans? Only time will tell. There’s a sense of uncertainty in this Pandemic, but for Okoye, the fact that the judge and the Jury will be out for him is a certainty. The onus is on him to prove the doubters wrong.