Goalkeeper is one of just two players from U17 World Cup squad to make Super Eagles line-up in football's biggest tournament
Golden Eaglet at UAE 2013, career of Nigeria's Francis Uzoho takes flight in Russia 2018
In November 2013, a 14-year-old Nigerian goalkeeper, hiding under an ill-fitting green baseball cap, celebrated on the field at Abu Dhabi’s Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium after winning the Fifa Under 17 World Cup.
Five years on and now the youngest goalkeeper at the World Cup in Russia, Francis Uzoho will on Tuesday night be tasked with shutting out Lionel Messi in a match that is being billed as a play-off for a place in the last 16.
Nigeria meet Argentina in St Petersburg knowing that if they can avoid defeat to the misfiring South Americans, they are likely to progress to the knockout stages for a second successive finals. Only an Iceland victory by two goals over Group D leaders Croatia could possibly derail their destiny.
Uzoho, 19 and standing at 196 centimetres, is one of just two Super Eagles to have come up through Nigeria’s successful U17 squad. Yet he has done so with a fair share of serendipity.
Nigeria’s first-choice goalkeeper Carl Ikeme was diagnosed with leukaemia last summer, just a few months after Vincent Enyeama of Lille had suffered a serious knee injury. That left manager Gernot Rohr relying on Ikechukwu Ezenwa, who plays for local side Enyimba.
“He did well and we were satisfied, but we wanted to search and find a better solution in this important position, and that’s when we found Francis, who was playing some games with [Deportivo] la Coruna,” Rohr said. “Even though he was playing with the second team, we sent our goalkeeper coach twice to work with him and he prepared him very well.”
Uzoho made his full international debut in a friendly win over Argentina last November and will almost certainly start when the two teams face off again on Tuesday. His performance in the 2-0 win over Iceland last week made him the second-youngest goalkeeper to keep a clean sheet in World Cup history.
“He is improving,” Rohr added. “He is the youngest goalkeeper at this World Cup at just 19 years old, but he is cool-headed, a very good worker in training, and I think he will be a good solution for Nigeria in the future.”
When the Golden Eaglets won the U17 World Cup in the UAE, manager Manu Garba prophesied that the majority of the players in his squad would eventually make it to the full first team. Yet Uzoho, who was actually understudy to Dele Alampasu and did not play at that tournament, is one of only two players from the campaign to make the trip to Russia.
The other is Leicester City striker Kelechi Iheanacho, who was named player of the tournament in 2013 after hitting six goals and claiming seven assists in just seven games.
“It depends on how you keep developing,” Uzoho said. “If you develop well enough, we are proof that you will be given a chance in the national first team.”
Nigeria followed up their victory in 2013 with a successful title defence in 2015. But the country missed out on qualifying for last year’s U17 tournament in India after 26 players from a 60-strong squad were found to be overage.
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Yet while there is concern at home for those prohibited from playing and the experience they now lack, there remains belief that many from the golden generation of 2013 will yet break through to the national team.
Players such as Watford’s Isaac Success and Manchester City's Chidiebere Nwakali have already been capped, while Taiwo Awoniyi remains on the books at Liverpool. Musa Yahaya, one of the standout stars in the UAE five years ago, is employed by Porto B and hopes to make the step up to the first team next season.
For now, though, they will all surely – like the rest of Nigeria’s 186 million people – be watching Uzoho and his cohorts against the might of Messi and Argentina on Tuesday evening.
“It is a crucial game for us, a crucial game for both teams,” Uzoho said. “It’s going to be a do-or-die affair. I’m confident that we will beat them. We have three points from the win against Iceland, which gives us confidence. We have the winning mentality now, so we will enter the game with a good mindset.”
As for being charged with the task of stopping the world’s greatest player from scoring?
“I’m actually confident of my ability and that of my team,” Uzoho said. “I’m not scared of facing Messi.”