Okoye: Is he Eagles’ class?
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Time and again, Maduka Okoye has come under scrutiny and faced heavy criticisms for his poor performances for the Super Eagles, which has severally raised the question, ‘Is he worth a place in the Eagles?’
For a country famed for producing some of the continent’s safest hands like Emmanuel Okala, Inuwa Lawal Rigogo,Peter Fregene, Christian Obi, David Ngodigha, Peter Rufai, Dosu Joseph, Vincent Enyeama, Carl Ikeme and several other top-rated goalies, Nigerians are obviously fed up with the shot-stopper, whome they’ve tagged a ‘fine boy’ due to his looks.
While of course, Nigerians are among the most impatient fans, it stems from their passion for the sport and Okoye has not been able to repay the faith the average Nigerian fan had in him, when he first filed out for the Eagles, against Brazil in an international friendly Oct 13, 2019.
Interestingly, Okoye had an impressive debut, when he replaced the injured Francis Uzoho in the high-profile friendly against Brazil, keeping a clean sheet in the 1-1 stalemate.
However, it has all gone downhill from there.
Most notably at the 2021 African Cup of Nations, Okoye was taunted on social media by fans, when he let in Youssef Mskani’s 47th minute goal from outside the box – which looked easier to save – as the Eagles were agonizingly knocked out by Tunisia in the second round clash.
The keeper was subjected to cyberbullying, including death threats by fans. Following the backlash, the Watford goalie allegedly pulled out of the Eagles Qatar 2022 World Cup final qualifiers against Ghana on account of illness, last March.
He also asked to be left out of the team to focus on settling in at his new club, after being invited for the international friendlies against Mexico and Ecuador, as well as the 2023 AFCON qualifiers against Sierra Leone and Sao Tome and Principe.
New Eagles coach Jose Peseiro then gave the 23-year-old another chance to have a shot at the No.1 jersey during last month’s double-header friendlies against the Desert Foxes of Algeria in Constantine and Oran.
But the move seemed to backfire, as his blunder gifted the Algeria B team the opening goal of the 2-2 draw.
After receiving a back-pass from defender Valentine Ozornwafor and despite being under no pressure, Okoye took his time, perhaps trying to hone his dribbling skills, rather than clear the ball. But the advancing Karimi Aribi snatched the ball from Okoye’s fumbling legs, before going on to score.
Although he was largely untested during the 45 minutes he was on the pitch, Okoye lacked composure and struggled to play from the back, the style Peseiro favours.
At club level, Okoye is also struggling, only managing bench roles at Watford since his first appearance in an EFL Cup game in August, where he conceded two goals, before the Hornets were knocked out of the competition.
A lack of games for Watford proves that there is indeed a problem with the shot-stopper’s confidence after the English side went to great lengths to sign him on a five-and-half-year deal.
Former Eagles midfielder Etim Esin blamed the poor performance on a lack of belief and believes Okoye can still be a good goalkeeper for the Eagles.
“There is no confidence, we need a keeper who can keep with confidence. Back in the day, we had Peter Rufai, but it’s not every time we have to change goalkeepers. We just need them to have confidence, and work with them to give them that confidence,” Esin told PUNCH Sports Extra.
While Okoye should easily be the first choice ahead of Francis Uzoho and Adebayo Adeleye, his mistakes, when entrusted with the responsibility to man the sticks make many a fan anxious over what could be.
Uzoho has not been the same since his injury against Brazil in 2019, and his mistake cost the Eagles dearly in the 2-1 loss to the Foxes last week. Hapoel Jerusalem youngster Adeleye is yet to get the nod as No.1 and after a shaky start on his Eagles debut against the Algeria B team, it’s clear he’s not yet the finished product for that role.
The goalkeeping department has given Peseiro headache, which he admitted.
Although Peseiro defended Okoye and Uzoho after their errors, our correspondent learnt he admitted to his technical crew that his major area of concern was with the goalkeepers.
Peseiro loves goalkeepers who are good with their feet. And the idea is to have them build an attack from the back and help the team control games. But from the recent games under the Portuguese, none of the keepers seem to be comfortable with the ball at their feet.
“Okoye is not a bad goalkeeper, if he can recapture his confidence, he can succeed. He has the height and the strength to be a good keeper. Let’s look forward to the game against Portugal now.”