<
>

Nigeria's Uzoho inclusion further indictment of NPFL

Francis Uzoho Oleg Nikishin/Getty Image

It's now looking almost certain that Francis Uzoho, an untested, inexperienced teenager with only two La Liga outings for Deportivo La Coruna will be Nigeria's first-choice goalkeeper at the World Cup in Russia.

Uzoho will not be 20 until October, but on Tuesday, Nigeria coach Gernot Rohr confirmed that the youngster will start again for the Super Eagles against the Czech Republic in Austria on Wednesday.

That will make it the fifth consecutive start for the former junior international, and his sixth appearance overall.

This is a phenomenal achievement for the youngster, whose last taste of international football was on the substitute's bench at the 2013 U-17 World Cup

Watching Uzoho for the Eagles to date, it's clear that he has many qualities, and the potential to be an excellent stopper.

He is a big lad and a naturally talented goalkeeper, unencumbered by his size, even though there may be a few question marks about his positioning.

Clearly, Uzoho can go on to become Nigeria's top goalkeeper for the next decade or two if he continues on this whirlwind trajectory, and yes, he could and must surely be captain one day if he stays that long.

Talent aside, there is a healthy dose of fortune behind Uzoho's rise.

Were it not for the premature retirement of Vincent Enyeama, then the unfortunate leukaemia diagnosis of Carl Ikeme and the lack of trust in Ikechukwu Ezenwa and Daniel Akpeyi, the young starlet would probably be on a beach somewhere right now, or home with his family preparing to cheer the team like millions of other Nigerians.

Fate however, has conspired to bring him to this point, and in doing so, beamed a discomfiting spotlight on Nigeria's domestic football league.

There are 20 clubs in the NPFL, each with at least three goalkeepers in their ranks for a total of 60 goalkeepers. Of that number, about six are non-Nigerian. Another, Enyimba's Ezenwa is the only local league player going to the World Cup.

This means that over 50 goals, each with at least one full season of professional football, are not good enough to keep out a rookie with virtually no experience.

What is it that marks out a fledgling like Uzoho over experienced campaigners?

A source inside the team, who did not want to be named, broke it down for KweséESPN.

"He's a more natural goalkeeper. He has better grip of the ball and deals with crosses better. Moreover, he's young and has plenty of years ahead of him if he's nurtured properly," the source began.

"He is also very quick learner and unassuming too. He listens, accepts and respects all that he's told. That is a major plus.

"All he needs now is to earn the respect of the defence and team," he added. "He needs to take control of the defence but I think it'll come with time because the defence have to learn to respect him."

Uzoho was blamed by many fans for allowing Harry Kane's effort to slip underneath him and in for England's second goal in Saturday's 2-1 friendly defeat by England, but it is not something that worries his coaches, who have already legislated for errors borne of inexperience.

"That is one error in about four games," added KweséESPN's source. "He's allowed to make his mistakes, but looking at the big picture I think for the good of the nation he has all it takes to be our first choice for a long time."

This appears to close the door on the NPFL's stoppers, especially considering that Dele Alampasu, who was first-choice at the U-17 tournament ahead of Uzoho, en route to European success.

According to the team official, this is a poor reflection on the domestic league.

"This is a big indictment on our league," he concluded.

Another team source told KweséESPN that while the NPFL is not lacking in goalkeeping talent, poor coaching methods are not bringing out the best in the stoppers available.

"The goalkeepers need to be exposed to better training, otherwise, we will continue to see a situation like this where a young goalkeeper with no experience will come and take the national team jersey ahead of more experienced ones in the league."

For Uzoho however, this is all moot as he gets ready to carry Nigeria's hopes at the World Cup.

He will likely make mistakes in the weeks to come, but the big picture is that any such errors will be a learning curve that should ensure he can serve the Super Eagles well for at least another decade to come.