The 19-year-old holds a record as the youngest foreign keeper to play in La Liga and benefited from a ‘miracle’ en route to the top
At the age of 12, Francis Uzoho’s dream of becoming a footballer seemed to have come crashing down. He had his heart set on making it as a centre-forward, perhaps becoming a goalscoring hero for his country if things went especially well, but then came the kind of feedback every youngster dreads. He was too slow to succeed up front, his coach told him, before putting forward a possible solution: Uzoho’s gangling frame and long arms might have made for an ungainly striker, but why not try and put them to good use in goal?
To many, it would have been an insurmountable slight. Goalkeeping is generally scorned in Nigerian grassroots football; weaker players and outfield substitutes are routinely asked to fill in between the posts, with few youngsters setting out in the hope of making the position theirs. Yet Uzoho warmed to his task and, seven years on, has a shot at the Super Eagles’ No 1 jersey in his first World Cup – months after becoming the youngest foreign goalkeeper to play in La Liga.
There was no sulking on Uzoho’s part after his redeployment. Instead he took the change in his stride, learning the ropes with dedication and establishing himself as first choice at the small academy where he had begun. By the following year he had done enough to earn a move to the Aspire Academy in Qatar, selected from a pool of 50 players having shone in a tournament sponsored by Coca-Cola.
It was a watershed moment in more ways than one. Finally, Uzoho had achieved a level of access that would win over his first doubter: his father. Uzoho Sr had forbidden him from playing football when he was younger, even punishing him when he disobeyed. He feared that a devotion to sport could lead his son into bad company and vices such as smoking; a formal education seemed a far more secure way forward. Nonetheless, Uzoho shone at handball and basketball as a boy, his huge frame winning plenty of admirers, before settling into the sport that would make his name.
With his father satisfied, Uzoho went from strength to strength, catching Deportivo La Coruña’s eye in 2016 and joining the Spanish club. His ability is clear, although he has had several slices of luck in his path to the senior national team. He had been completely out of the frame to feature in Nigeria’s triumphant Under-17 World Cup campaign in 2013, not playing in the Africa Under-17 Cup of Nations that served as a qualifying tournament, before finding himself propelled into the squad when three other goalkeepers failed the mandatory MRI scan used to ascertain players’ ages.
Uzoho was quick to call it a miracle, knowing he played no part in getting the team to the tournament. “I was not there from the beginning when the team played the qualifiers, played in the continental competition and qualified for the [Under-20] World Cup,” he told The Nation. “There were a lot of goalkeepers that came before me and they were not picked, and here I am; 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.”
Nigeria’s Francis Uzoho spreads himself in an effort to thwart Robert Lewandowski during the Super Eagles’ 1-0 win over Poland in March 2018. Photograph: MB Media/Getty Images
Five years later the stars have aligned again, although with a sizeable degree of sadness this time. Carl Ikeme’s illness – the Wolves goalkeeper has leukaemia – contributed to Uzoho’s opportunity in the senior squad, as did Vincent Enyeama’s injury and subsequent alienation by Marcelo Bielsa at Lille. Uzoho has made only two senior appearances for Deportivo but found himself in the senior Nigeria team within a month of that record-breaking debut – which came against Eibar last October when he was 18 years, 11 months and 17 days old.
Uzoho, who counts Enyeama as an idol, made good use of the opportunity that fell his way. He replaced the fumbling Daniel Akpeyi at half-time of the friendly against Argentina, producing a calm and commanding performance. Those are facets lacking in the other options available to Gernot Rohr, who sent the goalkeeping coach Enrico Pionetti to work with Uzoho at Deportivo after that impressive international bow. He has since played three more games for his country. The first two of those went well; whether his error against England at Wembley costs him remains to be seen.
Before that game Rohr had said: “I won’t be afraid to start him in our opening game against Croatia. I am optimistic that he would rise to the occasion in Russia.”
Had things turned out differently, Uzoho might have been holding off defenders with his impressive build before thudding home a crucial far-post header against Croatia. Instead he hopes his sharp reflexes and remarkable shot-stopping abilities will earn him a starting place on the highest stage.