A twist of fate shot Sparta Rotterdam's Maduka Okoye to Nigeria's number 1

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Nigeria goalkeeper Maduka Okoye has come a long way in two years, going from Germany's Regionalliga to Rotterdam to Watford, and he told ESPN that he is targeting both AFCON victory and a place at the 2022 World Cup.

Okoye has gone from being a backup goalkeeper for Fortuna Dusseldorf II, to Sparta Rotterdam's second team in the Dutch third division, then first choice at Sparta Rotterdam and coveted by giants Ajax Amsterdam, and eventually signed by Watford in the English Premier League.

The German-born stopper, who will remain on loan with Rotterdam in the Eredivisie till January 2022, told ESPN: "They [Watford fans] will see a young and hungry goalkeeper who is willing to learn a lot and give everything, but I don't want to talk too much now.

"It's the biggest league, but I know my qualities. First of all, I'm going to focus on AFCON and then the end of the season with Rotterdam, and then we focus on Watford after."

Out of the blue in 2019, Okoye was called up by Nigeria coach Gernot Rohr. The Super Eagles were in the market for quality goalkeepers and had been testing different options for years. They seem to have finally found the one that stuck.

Long-time goalie and captain Vincent Enyeama had retired just before Rohr took over from Sunday Oliseh in 2015. His replacement Carl Ikeme was forced into retirement after being diagnosed with leukaemia in 2018.

Francis Uzoho, a rookie, had seen off competition from Daniel Akpeyi and Ikechukwu Ezenwa and manned the posts for Nigeria at the 2018 World Cup. Akpeyi, the most senior of the goalkeepers, was not exactly a shining beacon of confidence, while Ezenwa not even considered the best goalkeeper in the domestic league.

Due to his German mother, Okoye also qualified to represent Germany, but said his dad made sure it was always Nigeria from the get go, and there was never any doubt about where his allegiances lay.

He said: "My father always showed me the videos and the clips of the Super Eagles; the way they dance and sing. Whenever he went to Nigeria, he always came back with a lot of Nigerian jerseys.

"So when the call came, we didn't even have to discuss this because when I told this to my father, it was also a dream come true for him.

"He always believed in me and he always pushed me to the limits and he always told me when I was young that I'm going to play for Nigeria one day and that's why when I told him this, it was no reason to discuss it and it was just enjoyment.

"Of course, my mother was supporting it also even though she's German."

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Getting a national call is one thing. Actually making an appearance is usually quite another, especially for goalkeepers. Rohr's early days had seen quite the merry-go-round, with the likes of former youth internationals Dele Ajiboye and Dele Alampasu having come and gone.

Plus, with Uzoho in steady form, it was unlikely that he could be usurped. Or even if he wasn't in good nick, a second division goalkeeper moving up the depth chart so quickly seemed far-fetched.

And that was when fate interjected.

Uzoho suffered an injury during Nigeria's friendly against Brazil, in October 2019. Ezenwa was the regular backup, but he had arrived camp unexpectedly unfit and in no shape to feature. So Rohr threw Okoye into the fray.

It was a decision from left field that left the player himself blindsided: "This came very unexpected because I didn't expect to play.

"Of course, these are things that you cannot decide, like the injury of Uzoho, very unlucky for him and also not a nice moment in his career. But of course, for me, it was a door opener for all this that happened after.

"I think was a beautiful day to remember."

Rohr told ESPN: "He was surprised. But we believed in him and he took it very well and we were happy with him."

Okoye was so excited that he stayed up until the wee hours talking to his dad and his family after the game, which Nigeria drew 1-1: "I still remember I talked to them from the balcony in the hotel after the game at 2am. It was emotional and we were just happy because it was something we've been working for together, me and my father."

That night in 2019 proved to be the turning point in his career. Nine months later, he had joined Dutch outfit Sparta Rotterdam and within a few months had moved from playing in the Tweede Divisie with their second team, to first choice in the first team.

He said: "I always knew how much I can do and how much talent I have, and that's why I was ready to be a number one goalkeeper for any club side.

"When I came to Rotterdam, I started as a bench player but after six games, I was a starter and from this moment on, I was even more hungry and more focused to climb higher in my career."

That focus and his performances not only saw him keep his spot as Sparta number one, but also with the Super Eagles, even after the return of Uzoho from long term injury. And it is the same spirit he says he will take to Watford.

The Hornets already have Ben Foster, although he is 38 to Okoye's 22. But the Nigerian will have to fight for his place when he eventually gets to England.

He said: "Of course, it's not going to be easy, and there's never the assurance to be the number one or be a starter as a football player, but that's why I just need to stick to the plan and work hard and develop myself and then I'm sure I will get my chances at Watford."

He will have the benefit of a solid Nigerian contingent helping him ease in at Watford, with defender William Troost-Ekong, midfielder Oghenekaro Etebo, and forward Emmanuel Dennis already established at the club.

Okoye said the entire transfer was so hush hush he did not have time to ask their advice before signing: "I didn't talk to them before I signed because it was quite undercover everything.

"But of course, it's nice to have some Nigerian brothers over there and some teammates from the Super Eagles. Players like Ekong can really pick me up there, and make me feel home in the first weeks and help me a lot in the beginning and I can't wait to work with all of them together.

"It's the best league in the world and I just want to show myself and reach new heights and new levels and develop from day to day with a great stuff over there at Watford."

Okoye was in goal for Nigeria through the successful qualification for next year's Nations Cup, and also as they negotiated their way through the qualifiers for the World Cup with the Super Eagles winning their group and advancing to the final playoff round.

While many fans are less than confident of the Eagles reaching the World Cup, Okoye fully expects to be in Qatar with Nigeria: "I am very sure because one thing I learned is that when it really comes to the point where we have to, we are going to do everything to get the win.

"I saw this before I entered the Super Eagles, but I also saw it while I'm with the Super Eagles, so I'm very sure that no matter what, we're going to get a ticket for a World Cup."

Part of that confidence comes from having suffered the lowest disappointment with the Eagles, when they gave up a 4-1 lead to draw 4-4 at home to Sierra Leone.

Okoye says the lessons will serve them well: "From these games, you can learn a lot and you will always remember these matches, these games. But it's also good to experience something like this and prevent it for the next time.

"The biggest lesson is, of course, that a game is not over until the referee has blown the last whistle and to stick together as a team.

"I learnt that we just need to stick together no matter; whether we are 5-0 up or 5-0 down, it don't matter. We need to play 90 minutes, focused and fearless."