Now that came out of the blue! Maduka Okoye – Super Eagles number one – is now an English Premier League goalkeeper for Watford FC following his unveiling this week.
Such great news that will surely confirm all along that those fans (like myself) pointing out Okoye’s shortcomings were indeed shortsighted after all, right? Not exactly. To call Okoye’s rise meteoric will be putting it lightly. Just under 3 years ago, the 22 year old net-minder was minding his business in the lower leagues of German football. The thing about Okoye is that to us his critics, he doesn’t seem to inspire much confidence in between the sticks. When he was introduced for the injured Uzoho against Brazil in the 2019 friendly, a body of fans were left unconvincing by his brief cameo. He has good looks but his style of goalkeeping did not look that good. His starting position, diving technique, decision making, reflexes and how he just conducted himself overall just left a bit to be desired. But, there were many fans back then who felt a star was born. To these fans, they saw a (very) young goalkeeper who was slightly overawed by the occasion against Brazil but one who will come good in time. However, the prediction from us critics was that Okoye will be exposed soon enough as a goalkeeper with inadequate skills to cut it in international football. When he conceded 4 goals against Sierra Leone last year, a game the Super Eagles were cruising comfortably into victory, the knives were out and the prediction (of his detractors) had come true quicker than expected – and against a very lowly opposition.
But, like a phoenix, Okoye rose from the ashes of that disappointment to establish himself firmly as undisputed number one for club and country with scintillating saves and overall performances that won critical acclaim in the Netherlands for his club Sparta Rotterdam and for the Super Eagles on occasions. It will be fair to say that Okoye has risen from obscurity to stardom in the space of just 2 years and his star is set to shine more brightly when he formally moves to the English Premier League next season. Even if Watford gets relegated, some fans (including myself) will still perceive the English Championship as an upgrade. It will be gravely unfair to compare Okoye with other Nigerian (indigenous) goalkeepers just because of how rapid he is rising. True, Okoye’s rise has a lot to do with his talent, skills, attributes and capabilities as a goalkeeper, but I believe being born and bred in Europe gives him an added and distinct advantage.
If Francis Uzoho plays and commands a starting shirt in Cyprus and continues his growth trajectory that was evident in 2018, I will still consider him (Uzoho) a better goalkeeper just on the account of how appealing his saves, mannerisms and command of his area comes across. On a good day, Uzoho’s goalkeeper skills are fluent and his reflexes appear sharper. There is a frisson of excitement and buzz of fascination that comes with seeing Uzoho stretch like a predator to palm away the ball (or bark instructions at his defenders) that you just don’t see with Okoye. If Uzoho were born in Spain, it is not a stretch to suggest that he would, by now, be either a La Liga or La Liga 2 established goalkeeper. According to the Holy Book, the battle doesn’t always go to the strongest (more so if you are born in Nigeria!) but time and chance happens to them all. It is Okoye’s time and I pray he gets the chance to shine in England. He is by no means a bad goalkeeper but one with great potential to improve on what is already a promising career. Good luck Okoye!