Nigeria goalkeeper rotation threatens Super Eagles’ Afcon hopes

Football


Over the past four years, a combination of circumstances has seen Nigeria witness a five-goalkeeper rotation; it is by far the highest turnover of goalies in the Super Eagles’ history.

When Vincent Enyeama retired abruptly in 2015, his place was taken by second-choice Carl Ikeme. Less than two years later, Ikeme called time on his career after being diagnosed with leukaemia. Daniel Akpeyi and Ikechukwu Ezenwa jostled briefly for the spot before it was eventually claimed by outsider Francis Uzoho.

This constant chopping and changing could prove to be the Super Eagles’ Achilles heel going into the Africa Cup of Nations in Egypt.

So fine are the margins of international football, that there is only the very thinnest of lines between starter and substitute. From there, it is so close to the wilderness.

Uzoho, who was seen as the great new hope of Nigeria’s goalkeeping future, is now discovering this the hard way. One mistake against Seychelles has seen the young goalkeeper go from being undisputed custodian to second elect behind Akpeyi.

The mistake was fairly innocuous, but it should never have happened.

With the Super Eagles leading 1-0, from Odion Ighalo’s penalty kick, Seychelles floated a free-kick into the penalty area. Uzoho inexplicably decided to go for the ball, even with a posse of defenders contesting for it. He failed to get any purchase, punching the ball only as far as Roddy Melanie, who was only too grateful to volley home.

As expected, the blowback was swift; it was intense and it was unforgiving. To the point where Nigeria coach Gernot Rohr felt compelled to relieve the pressure by shooing the young goalie off to the under 23s for an Olympic qualifier despite making all the right public noises about backing him.

Uzoho has not kept goal for the Super Eagles since. Instead, Kaizer Chiefs’ Akpeyi — himself a previous target of the fans’ vitriol– has manned the posts for the past three games before the Africa Cup of Nations, against Egypt, Zimbabwe and Senegal. Based on that, and Rohr’s antecedents, it is clear where this is going. The German’s modus operandi is to hand his key personnel as much playing time as possible ahead of a tournament.

Rohr is not saying this explicitly, of course. Prior to this month’s friendly against Zimbabwe, the coach said that he had not decided on a No. 1.

That may have been music to the ears of the other two goalkeepers. But it would have sounded like a dirge to Uzoho; and rightly so, because it is clear on the evidence of Akpeyi’s minutes that a decision has been made, and Uzoho is the loser.

But how did it come to this? How did a talented young goalkeeper go from rising World Cup star to fallen comet?

It all began to unravel for Uzoho when he returned from the World Cup to find himself struggling for playing minutes at his Spanish Segunda Division club, Elche.

A midseason deadline day transfer to Anorthosis Famagusta was meant to give him valuable playing minutes, but the move ran into hitches when he was banned for one game and fined after submitting an invalid medical certificate before making his debut for the Cyprus club.

As if that was not enough, the goalkeeper was sent off in his first game back from suspension. It was not just raining but pouring for the 20-year-old.

All of this must have been tough to handle for a player who went from barely learning the ropes in his first full season of professional football to being thrown into the international fray as starting goalkeeper at the World Cup.

Nigeria striker Odion Ighalo told ESPN that he talked with the youngster, who was reeling from the effects of the harsh scrutiny from Nigeria fans after that Seychelles error

“He told me they were saying horrible things about him and it was making him feel bad,” Ighalo said. “So I talked to him personally. I saw what he posted [on social media] and I told him to take it down and not blame himself. It’s a football game. The most important thing is that we won. Don’t mind what people say outside. He said, ‘They are saying rubbish about me on Instagram and on Twitter’.

“I said, ‘Do you remember what they said about me in World Cup?’,” Ighalo told ESPN, referencing the vitriolic abuse and death threats on social media after performances in Russia that he admitted had been below par. “‘Did you see me reply anyone?’ Just forget about it. It happens. Only God is perfect; we human beings are not perfect. We are bound to do mistakes. If you do mistake, lying down there is not a problem. It is picking yourself up again to do even much better.

“He said, ‘Thank you’. I keep talking to him to calm down, do his thing and not to get worried about what people say outside. People must talk but don’t pay too much attention; just concentrate on your job, that is the most important thing.”

Ighalo was not alone in backing Uzoho. Super Eagles defenders William Troost-Ekong and Leon Balogun also weighed in with support.

“It is all part of it,” Troost-Ekong told ESPN.

“I think all of us have made mistakes in the national team, and it wasn’t a situation that we blame Francis for anything. It’s going to happen again. If it’s not Francis, maybe me or another player so we just told him to carry on. Thankfully, he’s a confident boy so it wasn’t necessary that we had to pick him up after. It was just a bit of encouragement and he has been important for us before, and hopefully he will be important again for us.

“We have seen top players make mistakes. The best ones are the ones that keep it moving. It is normal to make mistakes, the difference is that the good ones can pick themselves up again afterwards.”

The support from teammates has not been enough to satisfy Rohr, and Uzoho is back to being an understudy.

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Akpeyi may well be the No. 1 going into Afcon, but he will be aware that things can change quickly in the game of Nigerian goalkeeping musical chairs.

He was called up and installed as No. 1 when Ikeme retired suddenly from illness, ahead of then deputy Ezenwa, and performed admirably as the Super Eagles routed Algeria 3-1 at home in a World Cup qualifier. The position seemed to be a lock for him.

But a nightmare performance against South Africa in the first of the 2019 Afcon qualifiers led to the installation of Ezenwa and Uzoho’s call up.

Akpeyi’s fate was sealed when he made a bone-headed decision to pick up the ball outside his area in a friendly against Argentina, which led to a free-kick and goal. He was replaced at halftime by Uzoho, and never quite made it back onto the pitch until the post-qualifying friendly against Egypt.

As it stands, Akpeyi will need to play out of his skin, with no errors, to avoid the axe for a second time. And if he does make a mistake, he will need the same iron-clad skin with which Enyeama navigated his way through during his early years as Nigeria keeper, when his every touch, every kick and every failing was magnified a hundred fold.

Perhaps the current class of keepers needs to seek counsel from their former captain on how to handle the pressure.

Else, this could be the hole that sinks the Super Eagles’ boat.





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