It was a moment of joy last October when a relatively unknown Francis Uzoho became the youngest foreign goalkeeper to feature in the Spanish Primera Division when Deportivo La Coruna drew 0-0 with Eibar.
He would go on to make another appearance against Kayode Olarenwaju’s Girona, and soon caught the attention of Super Eagles coach Gernot Rohr.
The 19-year old was given his maiden senior national team call-up in November’s friendly with Argentina, and came on as a second-half substitute for the disappointing Daniel Akpeyi in the comeback 4-2 friendly win in Krasnodar.
He impressed, and instantly won the hearts of many fans, prompting speculation that he could be the future of Nigeria’s goalkeeping.
However, since the Girona game, Uzoho has failed to feature for the senior team, but has rather been a regular part of the B team.
Indeed the Aspire Academy graduate has featured 15 times, but does being a reserve player hinder his prospects of being the preferred choice between the sticks in Russia, with Carl Ikeme still a long way from recovery and Vincent Enyeama ruled out for a potential return?
Rohr still sees potential in Uzoho, and took big strides in sending goalkeeper trainer Enrico Pionetti to Spain to work with the young goalie earlier this month. That the Nwangele native has kept 10 clean sheets for the Depor B team is a sign of the promise he still has for the future, but is it enough to set him apart from his goalkeeping rivals ahead of the World Cup?
Ikechukwu Ezenwa still looks primed to be the favourite goalkeeper to man the post in Russia.
He kept in the final three World Cup qualifiers and featured in both the WAFU Cup and African Nations Championship in Ghana and Morocco respectively. He put in strong performances in both tournaments as the Super Eagles made it to the final but lost out to the respective host countries.
Daniel Akpeyi continues to have low approval ratings among Nigerian fans after making consistent blunders whenever called upon. He has been doing well for his club side Chippa United in South Africa, but he has a long way to recovery before supporters can believe in his abilities again.
Others in contention are Dele Ajiboye and Daniel Alampasu. The former replaced Ezenwa after the Enyimba goalie got injured in the 1-0 CHAN semi-final win over Sudan. He was instrumental in keeping the Sudanese from getting the equaliser and won a lot of praise. The Plateau United shot stopper could however barely do anything in the 4-0 bashing by Morocco in the final.
Alampasu seems to be a long shot, having failed to make a single appearance with Portuguese outfit Feirense. He was on the bench thrice during the qualifiers, but it’s not certain that Rohr will throw the dice on a keeper without game time unless there’s a serious crisis.
For Uzoho, failing to consistently appear for the Deportivo senior team could count against him, in that the chance to play against the likes of Lionel Messi and Ivan Rakitic – who will all feature for Argentina and Croatia in Group D, is now gone.
This would have been the chance for the youngster to get better understanding of his opponents and would also improve his abilities with such exposure, but will playing for Depor’s reserve side give him enough exposure to top-level opponents ahead of Russia?
Putting trust in Uzoho for a big event like the World Cup might be risky due to his lack of experience.
Such was the case when Mile Svilar [above] represented Benfica in this season’s Uefa Champions League group phase. He became the youngest goalkeeper to feature in the competition when he made his bow against Manchester United, but the occasion was however marred by the 18-year old Belgian making a costly error and putting the ball into his own net.
It was a major reminder that experience remains one of the most valuable assets for keepers at any level of the game, let alone the top.
Uzoho still has a long and bright career ahead of him, and while it’s too early to say what his position will be when the World Cup kicks off in June, it is at least comforting to know he is still in Rohr’s plans.
However, it is the German tactician who has the tough job of selecting the suitable goalie that won’t jeopardise Nigeria’s chances of making a big impression at the global showpiece, and if Uzoho continues to play at reserve level, it would represent a major gamble to plump for him.
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