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As Nigeria searches for a new goalkeeping hero for the Super Eagles

As Nigeria searches for a new goalkeeping hero for the Super Eagles
December 07
08:58 2023

As they say, “history has a way of repeating itself”. As the search for a new goalkeeping hero for the Nigerian senior men’s national team, the Super Eagles, continues, I cannot but remember, what happened immediately after the Mali 2002 African Cup of Nations (AFCON) in which the team finished third. Thereafter, the team was disbanded, and coach Festus Adeboye Onigbinde took over from the late coach Amodu Shuaibu.

The Korea-Japan 2002 World Cup was about four months away then, and there was an urgent need to raise a team that would be competitive enough that Nigerian soccer fans would be proud of. Remember, most of the senior players, like Finidi George, Sunday Oliseh (the captain) Ndubisi Egbò, Victor Ikpeba, Karibe Ojigwe among others, were sent packing, following a misunderstanding between some senior players, and the Nigerian Football Federation (NFF), over outstanding bonuses and allowances. The new gaffer only picked the likes of Ike Shorunmu, Austin Okocha, Kanu Nwankwo, Julius Aghaowa, Celestine Babayaro, Taribo West, Mutiu Adepoju, and a few others among senior and experienced players along.

But among those selected from the disbanded AFCON contingent, only Shorunmu was a goalkeeper. That necessitated the spreading, wide, the dragnet to recruit new understudies, and deputies for the Ògún State-born shot stopper. Then in the local league, we had Chijioke Ejiogu (popularly known as the Arugo Monkey playing for Julius Berger FC of Lagos); Vincent Enyeama (with Enyimba International FC, the People’s Elephant of Aba); Sunday Rotimi (of El-Kanemi Warriors FC of Maiduguri); and Austin Ejide (of Gabros International FC of Nnewi, now FC Ifeanyi Uba of Nnewi). Their names were thrown up as possible candidates for the call-up to the Super Eagles camp.

The first set of friendly matches played, saw Austin Ejide man the post against Paraguay, in London, in a match that ended in a one-all draw. Austine Okocha got the equaliser in the 83rd minute after the South Americans had gone ahead in the 18th minute through Carlos Gamarra. A couple of other matches followed — Scotland 1-2 Nigeria. Julius Aghahowa scored the Eagles’ two goals in the 40th and 69th minutes after Christian Dailly had shot Scotland into an early lead when the game was seven minutes old. The next match was against the Republic of Ireland, which Nigeria won again with the same score line. Aghaowa and Efetobore Sodje scored the two goals for Nigeria. Steven Reid scored what turned out to be a consolation goal for Ireland in the 69th minute. Jamaica would be next, with James Obiorah, being responsible for the solitary goal that separated the Super Eagles from the Reggae Boyz. Shorunmu was between the sticks.

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To make a long story look like a mini-skirt, before Nigeria and the coach finally settled for the duo of Enyeama, and Ejide as deputies to understudy Shorunmu, who then was on the book of FC Lucern of Switzerland, and then at the twilight of his career, Enyeama had the first pre-tournament opportunity against the Harambee Stars of Kenya. The Eagles trounced their Kenyan counterparts 3-0.

At the world Cup proper, coach Onigbinde was not ready for any sort of gamble again, as he’d settled for the former 3SC of Ibadan safest pair of hands. But in the final group game against the three lions of England, with nothing to play for, except national pride as Nigeria have lost the first two matches to Juan Sebastian Vernon-inspired Argentina 1-0, and then 2-1 to a Henrik Laarson-inspired Sweden, Chief Onigbinde decided to try out some greenhorns, like Femi Opabunmi, and Vincent Enyeama and others. That game was all Enyeama needed to convince the team’s handlers that he deserved the number one shirt. From then until he retired in 2015, there was no looking back for the former Lille of France number one goal minder. He made a very fantastic safe from a Paul Scholes’ trademark thunderbolt of a shot, and would end the match, keeping a clean sheet in that Group-F final match. He went ahead to cap it with CAF Champions League crowns with Enyimba, in the 2002/03, and 2003/04 seasons, before moving to the Israeli league, from where he joined Lille SC of France in the Ligue 1, broke, and set many goalkeeping records for the side, that are still standing unbroken—eleven consecutive clean sheets. Furthermore, he would later go on, to practically name the Super Eagles’ number goalkeeping position after himself, until he retired from international football on 8 October 2015.

Since Enyeama quit the stage (the National team), followed by the short-lived rein of Carl Ikheme (then of Wolverhampton Wanders of England), who was forced into an untimely retirement by leukemia, Nigeria have been searching for that “goalkeeping hero” who would step into the shoes left behind by the likes of Emmanuel Okala, Best Ogedemgbe, Peter Rufai and of course, Enyeama himself. The consistent failure of Austin Ejide to provide the needed (stiff) competition for Enyeama was responsible for why the team’s handlers had to continue searching. Before Enyeama quit, there was a Daniel Akpeyi in the South African Premier Soccer League. But, he was as consistent in performance as my grandmother would be in goal for the Super Eagles—never convincing. Then, an Ekene Ezenwa, a Dele Alampasu, and a John Noble came into the mix, alongside Francis Uzoho, who coincidentally was Alampasu’s deputy at the cadet level in the UAE 2013 Under-17 World Cup, which Nigeria won.

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Following the untimely exit of Ikheme, the onus immediately fell on Uzoho to keep it tight for the Eagles at the back. Ever since he became the numero uno, his overall performance has been that of “consistent inconsistencies”. The immediate past coach of the national team, Coach Gernot Rohr then unearthed a Maduka Okoye from Germany. His arrival was a very promising one, as he immediately secured a move to Spartak Rotterdam in the Dutch Eredivisie, from Fortuna Düsseldorf ll, of Germany. His first sojourn in the national team as the “first choice” was also marred by expensive howlers, especially, against Tunisia in the Round of 16, at the Cameroon 2021 AFCON (although, played in January 2022, as a result of the ripple effects of Covid-19 pandemic). He then, due to the reactions of Nigerian football fans, embarked on a self-imposed exile from the national team since last year, only to resurface now at the peak of Uzoho’s jaw-dropping poor showing between the sticks for the Super Eagles in the ongoing 2026 World Cup qualifiers. As he is here on his “second missionary journey”, no one is sure if he’d recovered, psychologically, from the reactions of Super Eagles fans who allegedly (emptily) threatened him and his family, in the aftermath of his last outing for the team. It is therefore safe to say that, the duo of Okoye and Uzoho are very low on confidence right now, to carry on as the top two choices for the team, and therefore, need some protecting from the team’s technical crew. They need to be relieved temporarily, at least.

That leaves Coach José Peseiro (in whose technical know-how I have no trust, but that is a topic for another day) with two options. One, to try out those already in the camp — Adebayo Adeleye (Hapoel Jerusalem of Israel), Olorunleke Ọjọ́ (Enyimba International of Nigeria), and Amas Obasogie (Bendel Insurance FC of Nigeria). Two, spread wider the scouting dragnet to discover more hands who are hungrier for glory, like Kingdom Osayi (Doma United of Nigeria) to be tested. That could also include those who are born abroad, of Nigerian parentage, but plying their trades there, like Noah Atubolu (SC Freiburg of Germany), Arthur Okonkwo (Arsenal of England), and Rasheed Jonathan (Värnamo FC of Sweden); Lawal Tobias (LASK FC of Austria. But I have issues with the fact that quaffed a whooping four-goal against Liverpool last week in the UEFA Europa League at Anfield).

We have traveled that route before, and believe we can still do it — unearth the next goalkeeping “diamond”, like Enyeama, and Ikheme, from wherever, be it in the local league or abroad. I take it as an insult to our collective sensibility by the Super Eagles’ coach, when he said, Uzoho is currently the best we have to offer. He, rather, should have said; Uzoho is the best he could spot. After all, everybody has a pair of eyes, but not everybody sees.

Besides, the team selectors need to take it easy with Uzoho, and Okoye, remove them from the firing line for now, to allow them to regain their abysmally low confidence between the sticks for the national team, and save their (national team) careers from a total collapse—especially Uzoho who has been more involved in the recent festival of errors than others. It is one game, at least, one error. The last one being a free-kick from about 32 — yard away, going straight into the top-left corner of his net. It is not as though, the match was played under a weather condition with poor visibility. It was in a broad daylight, yet Uzoho still managed to concede the goal against the Warriors of Zimbabwe in Rwanda, due to his lack of good sense of judgment, and positioning. So the time has come for the team to have a go at trying out new pairs of safe hands. The Nigerian Premier Football League is such a fertile ground that it will only take weeks for the deployment of a consortium of national team scouts to various league, and the Federation’s Cup venues across the country, to come up with no fewer than five “rough pieces Diamonds” (rookie goalkeepers). These would only require just a bit of polishing before we have another set of “world beaters” on our hands, and spare ourselves of the recent blushes we’ve been subjected to by Uzoho, Maduka, and other mediocre goalkeepers in and around the Eagles’ camp, as we prepare for the next AFCON, come January 2024.

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Abubakar writes from Ilorin. He can be reached via [email protected]



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