AFCON 2021 Woes
Nigeria failed to get past the first knockout rounds of the Africa cup of Nations in January. They weren’t favorites from the jump but their performances in the group stages saw their stock rise exponentially. They however lost to Tunisia in the first knockout round.
Maduka Okoye stole the spotlight but for all the wrong reasons. He conceded a goal many Nigerians felt he shouldn’t have. Yousef Msakni lined up a long-range shot and caught Okoye wrong-footed, unable to make a save. Things went from bad to worse as Everton’s Alex Iwobi saw a red card only minutes after coming on.
At full time, both players were blamed for their Nation’s early AFCON 2021 exit. Okoye could argue he was blind-sighted by his defenders as they tried to block the shot, but Nigerians weren’t having it.
Both players were subjected to cyberbullying by fans, including death threats, and had to deactivate their comment section on Instagram. Maduka Okoye was blamed for being distracted due to the praises he got from female admirers.
His girlfriend Jelicia Westhoff took to Instagram to defend her man. “We are proud of you, not just when you win or when you stop a ball but because of the person you are from the inside. I’m proud of your efforts, your focus, your drive, and how you never give up. You helped the team and made a big mark while there. You deserve to be celebrated for making it this far. Forever proudly love you.”
Jelicia wasn’t alone in her quest to absolve her dearly beloved of his faults in goal as former super eagles goalkeeper Ike Shorunmu leaped to his defense too.
“Nobody should blame Maduka Okoye for the Super Eagles ouster in Cameroon. The shot from the Tunisian striker was strong and fast for him to handle because the Eagle’s defensive line did not shield him well. Okoye covered his space well, and that was why he had a slight touch on the ball, but his reflexes were not fast enough to stop the ball from going into the net. This can happen to any goalkeeper in the world. The eagles would have been beaten by up to three goals if not for Okoye’s excellent saves. People will not see that because Nigeria lost.”
World Cup Qualifying Woes
Fast-forward two months later, Nigerians are looking to put their AFCON heartbreak behind them and focus on securing a spot in the FIFA World Cup 2022. The super eagles were drawn against their biggest rivals Ghana. For Nigerians, the importance of the tie could not be overstated. It was a chance to kill two birds with one stone, getting the better of their noisy neighbors and qualifying for the World Cup.
The first leg could have gone either way but the black stars of Ghana held the eagles to a draw in Kumasi. The result meant that the deciding fixture would be played on home soil.
Maduka Okoye tested positive for Covid 19 before the match. He could not make the trip from the Netherlands to Abuja for the tie.
Nigerians did not forgive or forget. Some football fans have alleged that the 22-year-old feigned his illness to exclude himself from the match to avoid another backlash. Some fans saw Okoye’s absence as good news as they expressed a preference for Francis Uzoho of Omonia FC in Cyprus. A weird and biased preference that points to the unforgiving nature of the football fans.
It was all to play for at the MKO Abiola Stadium in Abuja. Thomas Partey’s well-struck low shot crept in under Uzoho’s clutches. The super eagles were given a lifeline as William Troost Ekong leveled scores from the penalty spot. It wasn’t enough to propel the Eagles to the next round as The black stars booked their place on away goals.
Nigerian fans were not having it, they invaded the pitch and destroyed properties and infrastructure worth over one billion dollars.
Maduka Okoye might have done better
You could argue Maduka Okoye would make that save but I guess we’d never find out. He has been impressive for Sparta this season recording a massive 70% save percentage for the Dutch outfit. Last season he recorded ten clean sheets in 28 games, contributed to his club’s eighth-place finish, and was voted Player of the Season by the fans. Just like the legendary Vincent Enyeama, he has made some early mistakes but he has the makings of a top goalie for the Super Eagles.
Okoye has the quality and experience to be Nigeria’s number one for now and in the future. The Watford loanee has been a mainstay for his Sparta Rotterdam and has produced top-notch performances for the relegation-threatened club. The 22-year-old has been instrumental for Sparta, recording four clean sheets in 21 games this season. He was linked to Eredivisie champions Ajax as a replacement for Andre Onana, who looks set for Inter Milan next season. Okoye was named Eredivisie goalkeeper of the month for March and made the team of the month. This is a keeper with a bright future. Were the insults worth it? Even the greatest goalkeepers make costly mistakes. Last season, we watched as the renowned Manuel Neuer parried Kylian Mbappe‘s tame efforts into his own goal. Yashin trophy winner Gianluigi Donnarumma sold his team’s UCL dreams against Real Madrid.
Goalkeepers make mistakes all the time. Even the best of them. The younger ones make even more. The vitriol that Okoye received was too much. That hate should have gone to the Nigerian Football Association (NFF) for sacking Gernot Rohr at such a precarious moment. Sure his football was dull, bland, and uninspiring but he got the results.
Nigeria has now failed to qualify for the World Cup for the first time since 2006 when they lost to Angola in Kano (also on away goal rules). No one would blame Nigerians for their disappointment. It is an understandable insult that the acclaimed giants of Africa would not participate in the biggest intercontinental competition in football. Nigerians will look back on Francis Uzoho’s performance against Ghana and have themselves to blame for slandering Okoye after one mistake. The question Nigerians have to answer after watching Francis Uzoho’s howler against Ghana is, was the Maduka Okoye slander worth it?