Football

Beyond The Sticks & Kicks, Okoye Has A Long, Bumpy Ride Ahead

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Rilwan Adetayo Balogun.

Shot stopper; safe hands- a goalkeeper has many names reminding him and everyone else of his responsibility in football.

Clean slate; clean sheet- these words further indicate the importance of being impregnable as the last man of an often pregnable defence

There have been many great goalkeepers, and all of them, excluding none have had nightmares to contend with. Memorable moments with stinging accuracies that remind the goalkeepers that they are after all, humans.

While some of them have been dubbed cats and monkeys, for their agility and flexibility, others can be tagged gods for what they have achieved in their careers. Some are like the old wine, they stay evergreen, and many others are like the stale soup, they never interest even the hungriest stomach.

The goalkeeper’s department in football is one that is not for the Lilly-livered. Sometimes it’s the live-wire of the team, and other times, it’s just another department to enjoy the perks of having quality teammates. Enough said! Nigerians have seen it all.

Giant, Emmanuel Okala was between the sticks in Nigeria’s first ever success in senior African football. At the 1980 Nations Cup, he alongside Best Ogedengbe were two goalkeepers the then Green Eagles could depend upon. In its second success and what is the best Nigerian national team yet, Peter Rufai stood as a solid rock between the sticks, showing great composure, strength and leadership. He of course, had good and sharp reflexes in abundance.

Rufai’s glorious retirement, or inglorious, should that Danish debacle be ever remembered, saw Ike Shorunmu succeed him. Shorunmu gave a good account of himself and opened the channel for arguably the best goalkeeper in Nigeria’s history. Enter Vincent Enyeama.

Many remember Enyeama for the reassurance he commanded in goal. His defenders were rest assured they had quality and a man they could call upon behind them, but this wasn’t a feat he achieved in one year. It took criticisms and taking Nigerians’ fury on board.

Enyeama showed excellent goalkeeping for over a decade, but had his shortfalls too. Brilliance isn’t error-proof, especially in a game that feeds on pressure.

Austin Ejide, Dele Aiyenugba, Greg Etafia, Femi Thomas, Sunday Rotimi, Theophilus Afelokhai, Ikechukwu Ezenwa, Francis Uzoho, Daniel Akpeyi and Carl Ikeme; Nigeria has tried many others, other than Enyeama.

In the 2008 African Cup of Nations when Berti Vogts chose to use Ejide ahead of Enyeama, Nigerians fumed and it ended in an embarrassing quarterfinal ouster. Ejide was scapegoated.

Coach, Gernot Rohr has had a truckload of goalkeepers since he came on board with Ikeme showing to have the safest hands, despite his stint. Of all, other than the former Wolves goalkeeper, no Nigerian goalie has shown enough quality or reassuring persona to command Nigerians’ respect. For Maduka Okoye, it will take more sticks, taken to heart with an iron shield, to build his goal.

Nigerians love football, and when losses reign, blames rain. Scapegoatism is a football mirror, and Nigerians have mastered the art of seeing through it. While it’s easy to hail the attackers when a team wins 4-nil, a goalkeeper must take the cut when such a big lead is squandered, regardless of what happened to the rest of the team. In football especially, the goalkeeper must have the last blush to spare. Hence, the blames put at the feet of Okoye are understood, except when they are outrightly and awkwardly bias and nonsensical.

Astonishingly and quite impressively, Rohr stuck to him for the second leg in Freetown. And regardless of the moments that preceded that game, the Super Eagles, with the same man in goal kept its first clean sheet in over a year. Rohr is not impressive. His approach is not bullish and he’s rigid in style, however, his players must love him for standing with them even at their coldest. Odion Ighalo, Ahmed Musa, Leon Balogun, Kelechi Iheanacho and now Okoye, he definitely understands what it means to repose confidence in a man, sometimes at the expense of his own credibility.

Okoye is young, and is part of a list of genuinely youthful and talented Nigerian goalkeepers that look to have a future if they don’t fall off the crane.

The sticks against Sierra Leone are not the end, and he will still deal with many more if he retains his place moving forward. It’s a generational sacrifice, ‘the storm before the calm’ and for as long as he remains in the light of the public, he will be screened by the degree of his acceptance of criticisms and desire to change; and more importantly, by the quality and products of his reflexes. He should fasten his seatbelt. It’s a long, bumpy ride.

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