Uzoho injury reboots Nigeria Super Eagles’ goalkeeping crisis
From the moment that Francis Uzoho landed awkwardly after going up for a cornerback and colliding with Brazil’s Casemiro, it was instantly obvious to Nigeria’s goalkeeper that something had gone very wrong.
For the rest of us, we needed a few more seconds and multiple TV replays to catch up. And one of those angles of his knee looked especially horrific.
The goalkeeper immediately started taking off his gloves, and it was clear from that action alone that his day was done. What neither Uzoho nor the rest of us knew was exactly how long he would be absent from football.
Nigerians waited with bated breath, with the youngster having just recently returned to a good spell of form following a mistake in Africa Cup of Nations qualifying that had seen him demoted.
They were even more on edge after this bit of ball-park speculation from Nigeria football fan and medical doctor Tunde Akinbinu, who suggested on Twitter that “we might be looking at a range of 6 weeks – 6/9 months before he returns”.
When the news broke a day later, it turned out to be the worst possible outcome and the good doctor had been correct: The youngster had suffered ligament damage in that fall, and would be out for at least six months.
Hear that sound? It’s hundreds of millions of Nigerian hearts sinking in despair. Gernot Rohr may not be Nigerian, but the Super Eagles coach’s heart would have been making that downward trip with all those others.
Deja vu? Exactly.
Rohr took over the Nigerian reins with Carl Ikeme as his No. 1. Ikeme was out of action soon after, when he was diagnosed with acute leukaemia. Daniel Akpeyi was brought in, did well for one game against Algeria then faltered against South Africa.
Rohr handing the reins to Ikechukwu Ezenwa, before the latter was eventually replaced by then-teenager Uzoho ahead of and into the 2018 FIFA World Cup.
This goalkeeper instability was identified as a major problem for Nigeria heading into the Africa Cup of Nations, one that could make or break their title hopes, and that proved to be a well-founded fear.
Nigeria lost to Algeria in the semifinals, due to what was largely seen as a goalkeeping error by Akpeyi. Uzoho was reinstalled for the bronze medal match, and he looked to be back on his best form through that game and afterwards. Until this injury.
And so Rohr returns to his goalkeeping merry-go-round, just when he and Nigerians were confident that a solution had been found.
The immediate good news is that 20-year-old Maduka Okoye, who was thrown in to replace Uzoho, looked steady and unflappable for the near-half hour he was on the pitch.
True, he was not called upon to make any outstanding saves, but his basics looked good, and his confidence was refreshing for a player thrown into the deep end on international debut. Against Brazil, no less.
Okoye’s performance left Rohr impressed, so much that the coach suggested the youngster could be the way forward.
“We appreciate his performance,” Rohr told ESPN. “It is not easy to come in at this moment against such an opponent. We will continue to work hard with him.”
The coach will now have to return to searching for a third goalkeeper. Especially after explaining that he did not send Ezenwa in because the Heartland goalie — who was the effective No. 2 — had not played a competitive game in months.
Of course the coach is still counting on Uzoho to return as soon as possible, telling ESPN that he gave the goalkeeper some advice after learning the extent of the injury.
“I told him to be strong and to find the best doctor now so he can recover.”
That advice may sound trite, but it is not. In actual fact, it is the most important advice Uzoho will get. There is a good reason why he should take particular care to stay strong and get the best care for his injury.
Ligament tears have not been especially easy to fix for Super Eagles players. Two of the most high-profile cases involved Christian Obodo and Chidi Odiah.
Obodo was one of the most promising midfielders of his generation, who was seen as heir apparent to Austin Okocha. He never quite recovered after his injury, despite multiple surgeries.
Right-back Odiah did not fare any better. After suffering an ACL tear representing Nigeria at the Africa Cup of Nations, he was never the same player and was released by his club in Russia before eventually retiring early.
Both players received good care in Europe but both appeared to return to playing too soon; they told ESPN that they would, with benefit of hindsight, have waited slightly longer before getting back to action.
Nigeria needs Uzoho. So does his club, AC Omonia in Cyprus. But both need him 100% healed and ready to play out the long career ahead of him.
Six to nine months may seem a long time now, but in the broader scheme of things it is almost inconsequential. Uzoho is only 20, and has plenty of time ahead of him. He should be allowed to take all the time he needs, even it is a year, to get back to full fitness.
Rohr, meanwhile, must go back to searching for quality, game-playing goalkeepers with Afcon and World Cup qualifiers due to start in less than a month and continue throughout next year.