A drab goalless draw in a La Liga game between
After an impressive performance earned Uzoho a clean sheet and an away draw for Deportivo, the Nigerian media purred over the then 18-year-old who also became the youngest foreign goalkeeper to debut in the La Liga.
That game in Spain set the course for an unpredictable eight months that followed which saw him become Nigeria’s first-choice goalkeeper at the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia.
But his La Liga debut wasn’t the deciding factor of his emergence as Super Eagles No 1. In June 2017, Carl Ikeme who was Nigeria’s first choice goalkeeper was diagnosed with acute leukaemia during pre-season testing with his club Wolverhampton Wanderers.
Without his first choice-goalkeeper Ikeme, Super Eagles boss Gernot Rohr sought a reliable number one.
Daniel Akpeyi looked very shaky as he conceded two goals in Nigeria’s shocking home defeat to South Africa in a 2019 Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) qualifiers.
Ikechukwu Ezenwa offered more steady hands for the 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifiers against Cameroon (home and away) and Zambia but he was still unconvincing.
So when the Nigerian media became engrossed in Uzoho’s La Liga debut in October 2017, Rohr had a new try-out target.
Uzoho was given his first Super Eagles call-up for the dead-rubber World Cup qualifier against Argentina and the friendly game against Argentina.
He made his debut against Argentina, coming on at halftime to keep a clean sheet and helped Nigeria to an exciting win.
The chosen one
The decision to make Uzoho Super Eagles No 1 goalkeeper wasn’t down to just Rohr, he needed help.
In July 2017, the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) agreed on a deal with Italian goalkeeper coach Enrico Pionetti to work with the Super Eagles.
Rohr and Pionetti had worked together before and the Super Eagles coach trusted him.
It was Pionetti who played a huge role in Uzoho’s emergence as Super Eagles first-choice goalkeeper.
Pionetti was very impressed with Uzoho when the young goalkeeper first arrived in Super Eagles camp in November 2017. It was Pionetti who also travelled to Spain to work with Uzoho alongside the goalkeeper trainers at Deportivo La Coruna.
Like Rufai, like Uzoho
Uzoho’s fast emergence as Super Eagles number one goalkeeper is very similar to how Nigerian football great Peter Rufai reclaimed the No 1 position of the national team.
Just like Uzoho, Rufai also did not play in any of the qualifiers ahead of US 94 and it was the goalkeeper trainer of the then Super Eagles boss Clemens Westerhof that made the decision.
Wilfred Agbonavbare had been impressive throughout the qualifiers-old heads would remember his amazing saves in the games against Algeria and Cote d’Ivoire while Alloy Agu who was Super Eagles first-choice goalkeeper at the 1990 and 1992 AFCON tourneys was also in the squad.
With Rufai also in the picture ahead of the 1994 AFCON, Westerhof called on a goalkeeper trainer from Europe to make the decision on the first choice.
Rufai went on to justify the decision, impressing in Nigeria’s winning campaign at 1994 AFCON and also nailing down the position at USA 94.
“On that occasion with it was a matter of so many good goalkeepers, how do we decide who will be No. 1?, ace Nigerian sports journalist Mumini Alao said in a SoccerTalk Youtube show in February 2018.
“It was Rufai that emerged as number one from all the indexes of consideration without playing in a single game during the qualifiers.
“He didn’t even go to the Nations Cup in Senegal 92, he also didn’t play any qualifier for the World Cup, but he went to Tunisia as the number one and we won the Nations Cup and he went to USA 94 as the established number one, even captain.”
In the first 15 minutes of Nigeria’s opening game of the 1994 World Cup, it was Rufai who caught the eye, pulling off some remarkable saves against much-fancied Bulgaria before the Super Eagles shook off jitters to beat the Europeans 3-0.
Uzoho did not catch the eye at the World Cup like Rufai in 1994, but at the age of 19 and poised to be Super Eagles first-choice goalkeeper for years to come, he has enough time to catch up.