Twist of fate propelled Sparta Rotterdam’s Maduka Okoye to Nigerian number 1

Nigerian goalkeeper Maduka Okoye has come a long way in two years, from the German Regionalliga in Rotterdam to Watford, and he told ESPN he is aiming for both CAN victory and a World Cup berth. 2022.

Okoye went from substitute goalkeeper for Fortuna Dusseldorf II to second team for Sparta Rotterdam in the Dutch third division, then first choice at Sparta Rotterdam and coveted by giants Ajax Amsterdam, and finally signed by Watford in the English Premier League.

The German-born cap, who will remain on loan with Rotterdam in the Eredivisie until January 2022, told ESPN: “They [Watford fans] will see a hungry young goalkeeper who is ready to learn a lot and give it their all, but I don’t want to talk too much now.

“It’s the biggest league, but I know my qualities. First of all, I will focus on CAN, then the end of the season with Rotterdam, then we will focus on Watford afterwards.”

Out of the blue in 2019, Okoye was called up by Nigeria coach Gernot Rohr. The Super Eagles were looking for quality goalies and had been testing different options for years. They seem to have finally found the right one.

Longtime goalkeeper and captain Vincent Enyeama retired just before Rohr took over from Sunday Oliseh in 2015. His replacement Carl Ikeme was forced to retire after being diagnosed with leukemia in 2018.

Francis Uzoho, a rookie, had knocked out competition from Daniel Akpeyi and Ikechukwu Ezenwa and held positions for Nigeria at the 2018 World Cup. Akpeyi, the longest-serving goalkeeper, was not exactly a shining beacon. trusted, while Ezenwa was not even considered the best goalkeeper in the national league.

Due to his German mother, Okoye also qualified to represent Germany, but said his father made sure it was always Nigeria from the start, and there was never the slightest doubt. on his allegiances.

He said: “My dad always showed me the Super Eagles videos and clips; the way they dance and sing. Every time he went to Nigeria he always came back with a lot of Nigerian shirts.

“So when the call came in we didn’t even have to discuss it because when I told my dad it was also a dream come true for him.

“He always believed in me and he always pushed me to the limit and he always told me when I was young that I was going to play for Nigeria one day and that’s why when I told him that, it wasn’t a reason to discuss it and it was just fun.

“Of course my mother supported him too even though she is German.”

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Receiving a national call is one thing. In fact, making one appearance is usually quite another, especially for goalies. Rohr’s debut had seen quite a stir, with former youth internationals Dele Ajiboye and Dele Alampasu having come and gone.

Also, with Uzoho in stable form, it was unlikely that he could be usurped. Or even if he wasn’t in a good gash, a Second Division keeper moving up the depth chart so quickly seemed overdone.

And that’s when fate stepped in.

Uzoho was injured in Nigeria’s friendly against Brazil in October 2019. Ezenwa was the regular replacement, but he arrived at camp unexpectedly unfit and unable to appear. So Rohr threw Okoye into the fray.

It was a decision from left field that left the player himself blind: “It was very unexpected because I was not expecting to play.

“Of course, these are things you can’t decide, like Uzoho’s injury, very unlucky for him and not a great moment in his career either. But of course, for me it was a door. open for whatever happened after.

“I think it was a beautiful, unforgettable day.”

Rohr told ESPN: “He was surprised. But we believed in him and he took it really well and we were happy with him.”

Okoye was so excited that he stayed awake until the early hours of the morning talking to his father and family after the game, that Nigeria drew 1-1: “I still remember talking to them since the hotel balcony after the game at 2 am It was emotional and we were just happy because it was something that we worked for together, me and my dad. “

That night of 2019 turned out to be the turning point in his career. Nine months later he had joined the Dutch team of Sparta Rotterdam and within a few months he had gone from the Tweede Divisie with his second team to the first choice in the first team.

He said: “I always knew how much I could do and how much talent I had, and that’s why I was ready to be the number one goalie for any club.

“When I arrived in Rotterdam I started as a bench player but after six games I was starting and from that point on I was even hungrier and more focused to climb higher in my career.”

This focus and his performances not only kept him in his number one spot in Sparta, but also with the Super Eagles, even after Uzoho returned from a long-term injury. And that’s the same spirit he says he’ll take to Watford.

The Hornets already have Ben Foster, despite being 38 versus 22 for Okoye. But the Nigerian will have to fight for his place when he finally arrives in England.

He said: “Of course it’s not going to be easy, and there’s never the assurance of being number one or being a starting football player, but that’s why I just have to m ‘stick to the plan, work hard and develop myself. and then I’m sure I’ll have my chance at Watford. “

He will benefit from a strong Nigerian contingent that will help him relax at Watford, with defender William Troost-Ekong, midfielder Oghenekaro Etebo and striker Emmanuel Dennis already established at the club.

Okoye said the whole transfer was so quiet he didn’t have time to ask them for advice before signing: “I didn’t speak to them before signing because it was all pretty secret.

“But of course it’s good to have Nigerian brothers there and Super Eagles teammates. Players like Ekong can really come and get me there and make me feel at home in the first few weeks and m ‘Help a lot at the start and look forward to working with them all together.

“It’s the best league in the world and I just want to show myself and reach new heights and new levels and grow day by day with a great thing over there at Watford.”

Okoye was in goal for Nigeria through the successful qualification for next year’s Nations Cup, and also as they negotiated their way through the World Cup qualifiers with the Super Eagles winning their group and qualifying for the final round of the playoffs.

While many fans are less than confident the Eagles will reach the World Cup, Okoye fully expects to be in Qatar with Nigeria: will do anything to win.

“I saw him before I got into the Super Eagles, but I also saw him while I was with the Super Eagles, so I’m very sure that whatever happens we’ll get a ticket to a Cup. of the world.”

Part of that confidence comes from having suffered the least disappointment with the Eagles, when they gave up a 4-1 lead to draw Sierra Leone 4-4 at home.

Okoye says the lessons will come in handy for them: “From these games you can learn a lot and you will always remember those games, these games. But it’s also good to experience something like that and prevent it for. the next time.

“The biggest lesson is, of course, that a game isn’t over until the referee blows the last whistle and sticks together as a team.

“I’ve learned that we just have to stay together, it doesn’t matter; whether we are leading 5-0 or 5-0, it doesn’t matter. We have to play 90 minutes, focused and fearless.”

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