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As we set sight on the forthcoming FIFA World Cup, MORAKINYO ABODUNRIN traces the trajectory of Francis Odinaka Uzoho from his days in the national U-17 set up and why the 19-year-old Deportivo La Coruna’s goal minder is Super Eagles’ best hope at Russia 2018
Lucky could well be added to Francis Odinaka Uzoho’s name bearing in mind the teenage goalkeeper’s fortuitous pilgrimage from the Golden Eaglets to the Super Eagles.

Five years ago, Uzoho was never in the equation with the FIFA U-17 World Cup-bound Nigeria U-17 team to the United Arab Emirates but he eventually enplaned and was part of the team that wrought the Golden Eaglets’ fourth global cadet trophy in Abu Dhabi. This term, it seems, lightning is about to strike again since the 19-year-old Deportivo La Coruna’s goaltender is now being tipped for the Super Eagles’ Number 1 shirt at the forthcoming FIFA World Cup Russia 2018.

With just three international caps under his belt against Argentina, Poland and Serbia, Uzoho is now one of the Super Eagles’ talking points ahead of Russia 2018 as he contends the spot with the likes of

Ikechukwu Ezenwa (Enyimba), Dele Ajiboye (Plateau United), Dele Alampasu (CD Feirense) and Daniel Akpeyi (Chippa United).

“Nigeria today has the youngest team in the World Cup with 24.9 years of average age,” Super Eagles’ Franco-German coach Gernot Rohr said, when he handed Uzoho his first cap as a second half substitute in the 4-2 thrashing of Argentina in a pre-World Cup friendly against Argentina at the Stadion FK Krasnodar in Russia last November. “The figure may be even lower in Russia, as we spotted a 19-year-old goalkeeper in La Coruna (Uzoho).”

Uzoho’s emergence into the Super Eagles months after others had secured the ticket to the World Cup was nothing but a miracle reminiscent of his adventure with the Golden Eaglets five years ago .

“Odinaka is my middle name and it means ‘it’s in the hands of God,’”Uzoho told this writer during an exclusive video-recorded interview at the Al-Jawhara Hotel in Dubai days before Golden Eaglets’ departure for their FIFA U-17 World Cup opener against Mexico in Al Ain. “I believe there is a reason for me to be here; and I think it’s just by miracle that I’m here with the way I came into the team.”

Very few Nigerian goalkeepers have had an impressive start of their career in Europe as Uzoho’s with Deportivo La Coruna.

He was reportedly born in Nwangele (Imo State) and he joined Qatari Aspire Academy at the age of 14. He started as a striker but was converted into a goalkeeper after being deemed “too slow”.

In 2016, he joined Deportivo de La Coruna’s juvenile squad after an impressive outing at a tournament in Barcelona and was handed a contact as a professional by Deportivo in January 2017.

Promoted to the reserve team ahead of the 2017–18 season, he made his senior debut on 10 September by starting in a 3–0 Segunda División B home win against Real Madrid Castilla.

Uzoho made his first team – and La Liga – debut on October 15, 2017 starting in a 0–0 away draw against SD Eibar making him the youngest ever foreign goalkeeper to debut in La Liga at the age of 18 years and 352 days and the second-youngest player to appear in the league during the campaign, only behind Real Madrid’s Achraf Hakimi.

Remarkably, Uzoho has repeatedly revealed the secrets of his rise with his philosophical postings on his insta account (uzoho4sure1).

“How bad do you want it? It’s your journey and your story,” he said after he signed for Depor.“ You might have had it tough, but where you start doesn’t mean anything, all that matters is where you finish.”

He was also forthcoming on his debut for Depor: “A day that will never disappear from my memory#MY DEBUT#Forza Depor#Thanks everyone for your support.IN CHRIST ALONE.”

A deeply religious guy, Uzoho must have hearkened to the Biblical injunction that ‘from the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks’ insisting: “Win the war against FEAR and you can achieve anything.”

Meanwhile, insiders in the Super Eagles camp believe the elements are truly in favour of Uzoho at this time to nick the number 1 shirt in Russia 2018 since other contenders are befuddled with one problem or the other.

“Unless Uzoho breaks his legs, he will be the Super Eagles’ goalkeeper in Russia,” an official who pleaded for anonymity told The Nation.

“Coach Gernot Rohr is rightly disposed to the boy and you don’t need a soothsayer to know he’s favoured; he was the only one out of all the goalkeepers that we have that Rohr sent the Italian goalkeeper trainer (Enrico Pionetti) to go and work with at his club in Spain.

“Of course, Uzoho has glaring lapses but Rohr has already made up his mind about working with him at the World Cup. He (Rohr) believes Uzoho can be knocked into shape at the pre-World Cup training camp ahead of Russia 2018.”

It was learnt also that Uzoho has stood out amongst his peers due to his courageous attitude. “Frankly, Ezenwa is the most experienced of all the goalkeepers we have now after we lost Carl Ikeme to leukaemia. Unfortunately, he got injured at the CHAN in Morocco and has not recovered well ever since. Ajiboye too has not fared too well with Plateau United and I also think Rohr was disappointed when Akpeyi was not available when we played Poland.

“Uzoho has shown enough bravery over the period of time and looking like Super Eagles’ best bet in Russia,” he said.

Speaking in the same vein, former Nigerian international and Golden Eaglets’ assistant coach, Nduka Ugbade, who facilitated Uzoho’s invitation to the national team setup in 2013 was further forthcoming:

“One of the reasons Odinaka (I love that name) was picked in 2013 was because he was very good at aerial balls with good time to catch or punch the balls coming into the box and I think he has improved tremendously in his last three matches with the Super Eagles.

“He’s very strong at catching balls with good timing, also quick at going down for ground balls as against what many people would expect for a tall goalkeeper. Also his diving ability is one of his good qualities; he’s quick to react on one-on-one situation.”

He continued on Uzoho’s suitability for Russia 2018: “I very much think Uzoho can do the business for the Super Eagles in Russia and with the way things are now, he might be the best option for Nigeria since we have not been able to get another goalkeeper better than him at this moment.

“We have seen other goalkeepers and I would want you to judge who is better for now, at least a well-polished goalkeeping skills and goalkeeping finesse and with absolute confidence in goal.

“Having said all this about the young man, I would want him to know that the world will be watching, and the coaches that had given him this great opportunity must not be disappointed. This he must know.

“I honestly hope he is able to do very well in our next few games before the World Cup and I think this will give him more exposure and better experience before Russia 2018.”

Similarly, Bode Oguntuyi, a respected sport journalist, speaking after Super Eagles last two pre-Russia 2018 internationally tune-up matches believes Uzoho is also good enough for the World Cup: “The first thing we have learnt from Super Eagles’ recent matches is that goalkeeper Uzoho is good than we earlier thought. Though a 19-year-old, he was jittery in the first game. Late into the game against Serbia, he made awesome saves and he’s going to get better in that set up.”

Overtime, Uzoho has shown his puritanical devotion to his goalkeeping duties from his early days and Dr. Ayodeji Olarinoye captured the rise of the teenager in this manner: “Life is all about destiny; from all indications Uzoho might be the one in goal (for the Super Eagles) at the World Cup and that will be a good one for him. I listened to Rohr during the pre-match briefing against Serbia and he said: ‘our goalkeeper was in goal against Argentina for 45mins, kept a clean slate, and also against Poland. He seems to prefer him.”

Similarly, Coach Manu Garba noted with a philosophical caveat: “He (Uzoho) has really developed having gotten experience playing in Europe. We still have some days before the World Cup and I think only the Super Eagles’ coach, his performance and form before the World Cup as well as destiny will determine if he will be Nigeria’s goalkeeper at the World Cup in Russia.”

Uzoho: ‘I’m in the hands of God’

Captured in a video-recorded interview at the Al-Jawhara Hotel in Dubai ahead of the FIFA U-17 World Cup UAE 2013, Francis Odinaka Uzoho spoke about his humble beginning with MORAKINYO ABODUNRIN and his views are still germane as we set eyes on Russia 2018. Excerpts…

What is the meaning of your name, Odinaka?

Odinaka is my middle name and it means ‘it’s in the hands of God.’

Your name has a deep meaning; can we say the Golden Eaglets are in safe hands with Odinaka?

Yes.

Why do you think so?

The way I came into the team; I believe there is a reason for me to be here and I think it’s just by miracle that I’m here.

What do you mean by miracle, are you not good enough to be in the team?

“I’m not saying I’m not good enough; I’m just referring to the way I found my way into the team. I was not there from the beginning when the team played the qualifiers, played in the continental competition and qualified for the World Cup. There were lot of goalkeepers that came before me and they were not picked, and here I’m; I was called when I did not even expect; I was called to come and try out and to me, it was a miracle that I made the team.

This team is going to the World Cup, how ready is Odinaka?

With my form now, I’m really ready for the tournament. I’m ready if I’m called for a match tomorrow because I know the team is ready.

Who do you think would carry this team at the World Cup?

I think all of us in this team are good. I have to tell the truth and I know that our front, I mean the attack, is very good with players like Kelechi Iheanacho, Success Isaac, Musa Yahaya and Chidera Eze. Our midfield is good and I also know our skippo, Musa (laughs, I don’t even know his surname).

You were very quiet when you came into the team but suddenly, especially in the last few days, you have turned out to be the cheer leader always singing and clapping ; where did you get this new-found spirit?

I got this spirit from all my teammates. My Ibo brothers also encouraged me when my morale was down but lately they all encouraged me that I should give my best, and as fate would have it for me, I started enjoying the camp and giving out my best.

You said your morale was low, what happened to you?

I was doing very well when I came into the team but suddenly my game dropped. I can’t explain what caused it, but suddenly, I got my form back. I thank God for that and I believe the team has so much confidence in me too.

Talking about your height, how do you feel when other players walk past you; what do they call you?

The usual name everybody calls me wherever I have played is ‘the tallest boy’ and they make funny comments and sometimes they say ‘you are too tall, give us road to pass.’ We usually joke about it.

From Golden Eaglets to Super Eagles

Dateline: September 2013. The Golden Eaglets were rounding off their training session this wet morning when a lanky boy strolled into the practising pitch of the U.J Esuene Stadium in Calabar much to the consternation of everyone in attendance.

Clutching a bag and decked in a brown jacket that has seen some useful days, you’ll be forgiven to dismiss the upstart as a fiery preacher on the prowl than a World Cup-bound goalkeeper. That was the manner Francis Odinaka Uzoho began his odyssey with the national team set up.

Uzoho’s arrival along with few others was barely few weeks to the announcement of a 30-man squad for the Golden Eaglets’ pre-World Cup camp to Dubai after the loss of some key players to the mandatory Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) Test. But it was Uzoho that instantly drew canny attention from officials and even other players for obvious reasons.

“Francis Uzoho was invited after we have qualified for the 2013 FIFA U-17 World Cup; this was due to the fact that three out of the four goalkeepers we had in camp failed the MRI test and I think he came on good recommendation because he was then at the Aspire Academy,” recalled Emeka Amadi (MFR), former Nigerian youth international and Germany-trained goalkeeper. “I remember the first day he (Uzoho) came into camp and Coach Nduka Ugbade screamed on sighting him: ‘Odinaka, how come you are now this tall; this is simply unbelievable.’

“According to Ugbade, Uzoho’s transformation was incredible because he was such a ‘tiny’ lad when he trained him a year before for the Copa Coca-Cola in Lagos but I was impressed with his body build and physique.

“There were doubts but then again I was impressed with his height and zeal to learn; he was a young talented goalkeeper without many basics and when I observed his behaviour and character in the camp, I was convinced that he was really a young boy. Eventually, he was one of the players that had a good MRI result.

“We did a lot of extra training to bring him to the standard and I remember convincing our chief coach, Manu Garba, that he will be a good goalkeeper in future and that his height is an added advantage,” added the former Hannover’96 goalkeeper.

Similarly, Dr Ayodeji Olarinoye, the erstwhile Golden Eaglets’ medical doctor who was recently appointed a Doping Control Officer (DCO) by the world soccer governing body, FIFA, equally offered an insight about Uzoho’s humble beginning.

“We lost some players to our periodic MRI screening and Coach Ugbade informed the technical crew that there was a young goalkeeper he had seen in Lagos but it’s been a long time,” explained Olarinoye, a member of the American College of Sports Medicine and British Association of Sports & Exercise Medicine.

“He (Odinaka) was later contacted but on seeing him, Coach Ugbade said he was surprised at his height as he wasn’t as tall the last time he saw him but Uzoho would later be one of the youngest members of the group as reported by MRI.

“He struggled a bit initially and I remember discussing with the goalkeepers’ coach (Emeka Amadi) who assured he had the right foundation to build on and he can be one of the best goaltenders in the world if he works hard.”

Yet Uzoho’s rise as a contender for the Super Eagles’ number 1 shirt for the FIFA World Cup Russia 2018 has elicited much interest far and wide with some claims on social media platform that he looked older than a 19-year-old teenager.

“My sincere view is that the MRI scan for age determination isn’t 100% poof that a player is U17. I know it has reduced age cheating significantly,” Olarinoye further told The Nation Sport from Cardiff where he’s undergoing a higher degree course in sports and exercise medicine. “In other system (countries), they would have investigated the phenomenal growth of the boy, but I think his humble background affected his growth and he just ballooned with good diet at Aspire. Of course, exposure to good nutrition at Aspire should have contributed to his growth.”

Meanwhile, Coach Garba was informative about the qualities he saw in Uzoho and why the lad was included in the 2013 World Cup squad alongside with Dele Alampasu and Suleiman Abdullahi, even as he dismissed cynical comments about the veracity of the age of his former ward.

“He (Odinaka) was picked for the 2013 World Cup because he was able to deal with high balls. Due to his height, we felt we can work on him to serve as a cover for the other two goalkeepers in camp,” Garba told The Nation Sport. “Everyone is entitled to their opinions (about the age of Odinaka), but some of us that saw Odinaka three to four years back will say he is within that range; in fact, we were afraid the velocity of the ball might push him inside the net if anyone took a ferocious shot because he looked quite young and very fragile.”

Equally, Golden Eaglets’ goalkeeper trainer, Amadi, added his opinion: “It was not easy task picking the three goalkeepers (Dele Alampasu; Suleiman Abdullahi and Francis Odinaka Uzoho) for the World Cup.

“The first consideration was about the quality and how good is the goalkeeper? The second consideration was the state of mind of the goalkeeper and this has to be good; ability to play in the team and ability to compose you.

“The mind to know that the goalkeeper has to contribute his quota to the success of the team and thirdly, the player in question must show the ability to know what to do at every point in time, when to launch the attack ;when to keep the ball to the advantage of the team and how to motivate the team.

“He possessed the qualities of a professional goalkeeper; tall, agile, a leader, motivator and very crazy. A goalkeeper must be crazy because you are always alone and must be fearless, a master – a boss.”

In the meantime, Uzoho himself admitted that it was a miracle that he made the Golden Eaglets’ squad to the FIFA U-17 World Cup in 2013, insisting that there was a divine intervention on his behalf.

He further defended his choice by the coach Garba-led technical crew as one of the three goalkeepers for the global cadet championship: “I’m not saying I’m not good enough; I’m just referring to the way I found my way into the team. I was not there from the beginning when the team played the qualifiers, played in the continental competition and qualified for the World Cup.

“There were a lot of goalkeepers that came before me and they were not picked, and here I’m; I was called when I did not even expect. I was called to come and try out and, to me, it was a miracle that I made the team.”

Though he was unused substitute throughout as the Golden Eaglets went all the way and deservedly won the FIFA U-117 Wold Cup with a thrilling 3-0 thrashing of defending champions, Mexico, in the final match, Uzoho’s road to stardom was truly well on the way as he joined the Deportivo La Coruna’s juvenile side after impressing at a tournament in Barcelona with the Aspire team.

Last October, he made his official debut and his contribution was well acknowledged by the Spanish side on its web site: “Eibar-Dépor will be remembered for Francis’ debut. Pepe Mel took a chance with Francis as the starting goalkeeper; a decision that will go down in the history books. The Nigerian goalkeeper is the youngest foreign player to play a LaLiga match (18 years and 352 days old), hence Dépor has lined up the eldest player (Songo’o: 46 years and 67 days old) and the youngest.

“He is also the youngest foreign player in Dépor’s history to have defended #asnosascores (our colours) in Primera and the second youngest goalkeeper after Juan Acuña, who debuted when he was 18 years and 227 days old.”

No wonder, Uzoho, the newcomer of yesterday with the Golden Eaglets, is surely set for the stars in Russia 2018.

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