COMMENT

Almost 3 years later, Uzoho turns the tables on Okoye in Super Eagles n.1 battle

On Friday, the Omonia Nicosia man was one of the more impressive performers for Nigeria, bringing Nigeria's goalkeeping situation full circle.

Francis Uzoho (IMAGO/Mykola Miakshykov/Ukrinform)

There was a certain symmetry to Francis Uzoho's performance against Ghana in Kumasi.

On a night when many in green looked a tad rattled by the noise and the cloying heat inside the Baba Yara Stadium, the 23-year-old stood up to be counted, making a number of important stops.

Two strong saves, from an Abdul Fatawu Issahaku first-half snapshot and then from a Mohammed Kudus effort in the second period, kept the score level and the tie on an even keel going into the second leg on Tuesday.

It was a significant performance for two related reasons.

In the first place, there is a good chance Uzoho would not have started at all had Maduka Okoye been available.

The Sparta Rotterdam man was named in the squad, and had received a vote of confidence from the coaching crew leading up to the encounter, but was forced to pull out at the last minute on account of testing positive for COVID.

In his absence, Uzoho then went on to serve notice of the depth within the goalkeeping ranks, proving crucial for the Super Eagles’ World Cup prospects.

The second sense in which it was significant is in its portent for the future.

It will be recalled that Uzoho came into the national team reckoning in late 2017 in a friendly against Argentina, coming on as a half-time substitute for Daniel Akpeyi, and was subsequently installed as Nigeria's first-choice goalkeeper for the following year's World Cup in Russia.

He kept that position until a bout of inactivity at club level cost him it temporarily for the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON), and then regained it afterwards.

However, it took a moment of misfortune for him to lose it on a more permanent basis: an injury against Brazil in an October 2019 friendly saw Okoye earn his first international cap, and pretty much since then the Dusseldorf-born goalkeeper has had the role to keep.

Until now.

It is ironic that it has taken another unfortunate circumstance, this time in Uzoho's favour, for him to get another crack at being number one, but it may be the in he needs to once again regain the spot he lost two-and-half years ago.

Beyond the fact of it, the timing is also rather opportune.

While there have been doubts expressed over Okoye from the moment he was first called up to the Nigeria national team, those misgivings have reached a fever pitch since AFCON and that wickedly-swerving Youssef Msakni shot. The sense is that his traducers had been waiting for the merest hint of opportunity to pounce, so vituperative has been the reaction to a situation that was far from black and white.

In that regard, Uzoho stepping in at this time, and excelling, is particularly serendipitous, not just for him, but for the Nigerian fanbase. Never mind their respective abilities (and in that regard, Okoye objectively has the advantage in terms of reflexes), the Omonia Nicosia man just better fits the Nigerian ideal of a goalkeeper: extroverted and aerially dominant in a way Okoye just isn't, despite being an inch shorter. It is less about what they are and more what they project: security is as much a feeling as anything else.

Another star turn in Abuja would make him nigh-on undroppable going forward, especially considering he has begun to play more regularly again for his club over the last couple of weeks.

It would also bring things full circle narratively. Just like four years ago, with a World Cup on the horizon, Uzoho has risen to assert himself once again.

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