23 February 2019

Nigeria: Francis Uzoho - When Debut Turned Sour

Photo: The Guardian
Francis Uzoho

After unsuccessful attempts to pin down a regular shirt with Deportivo La Coruna, Francis Uzoho moved to Spanish second-tier club, Elche, but his desire was still not met as he could only manage 11 appearances for them in all competitions.

With the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations fast approaching, the 20-year-old felt the need to move to a club where he would have more playing time and his searchlight turned to Cyprus. However, it was not a dream start as his debut may cost his side a nine-point deduction

In his search for top-flight football ahead of the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations billed for Egypt, Nigerian goalkeeper Francis Uzoho joined Cypriot giants Anorthosis Famagusta on a six-month loan from Spanish side Deportivo La Coruna.

"I've decided to take this big step in Cyprus and I need it because of what lies ahead. This is an important decision for my career and I am very happy that all parties supported this," Uzoho has said.

However, it was not the kind of start the Super Eagles safe hand would have hoped for as he was handed a one-match suspension and a fine of €1,000 euros in his debut game, which means he is set to miss the final match of the Cypriot regular season having already sat out two matches since his disputed debut.

Uzoho featured for his present side Anorthosis Famagusta in their 1-0 win over Apollon Limassol earlier this month, but the country's FA have found the Nigerian international and his club guilty and both have been sanctioned by the club.

He was handed $1,000 while the club have been docked six points and the result of the match overturned with reports claiming that the Cyprus Sports Organisation had initially declared Uzoho's health certificate void as of February 9.

However, in a follow-up decision on Monday annulled it altogether saying that it considered the document "as never having been issued." Uzoho was accused of forging documents to obtain his health certificate, saying it was issued even before the goalkeeper arrived in Cyprus.

Apollon Limassol got a three-point boost after the FA overturned the result in their favour while docking Anorthosis six points.

The decision will not go into effect for eight days but means that Apollon could move to first place in the Cyprus First Division with a win or draw against APOEL which leads the table on Sunday.

Anorthosis Famagusta have confirmed they will appeal against a nine-point deduction imposed by the Cyprus Football Association (CFA) for fielding the Nigerian goalkeeper. The CFA punished Anorthosis after it upheld an appeal by Apollon Limassol, who had disputed that debutant Uzoho played with an invalid health certificate in a game between the two sides.

But in a statement on the Anorthosis website, the club said it will ask the CFA to postpone its final regular league game while an appeal is lodged.

The overall deduction of nine points has seen the club drop into the bottom half of the 12-team league, which sees six clubs play each other twice more to decide who is relegated. That leaves the top six clubs to complete their seasons against each other to decide the Cypriot champions.

Uzoho and his representatives have declined to comment on the situation.

Before now, lack of regular football for his first-choice goalkeeper has been a great concern for Super Eagles coach Gernot Rohr ahead of the tournament in Egypt.

Capped 12 times by Nigeria, he played all three matches as the Super Eagles exited the 2018 World Cup in the group stage.

In October 2017, Uzoho became the youngest foreign goalkeeper to ever play in La Liga and marked a memorable Deportivo La Coruna debut with a clean sheet.

Uzoho was part of the victorious Nigerian squad at the 2013 U-17 World Cup in the United Arab Emirates, albeit without playing a single minute at the tournament.

He only arrived at Deportivo from Qatar's Aspire Academy in January 2017.

Ahead of the 2018 World Cup qualifier against Algeria and the international friendly game against Argentina, Uzoho had been handed his first Nigerian call-up after making his La Liga debut in La Coruna's 0-0 draw with Eibar on October 16.

The then18-year-old, who arrived at the club from Qatar's Aspire Academy in January, produced four important saves to help Deportivo claim a point.

"A day that will never disappear from my memory - my debut - thanks all for the support," he said.

At 18 years 11 months and 17 days, he became the second youngest player in La Liga this season behind Real Madrid's Moroccan defender, Achraf Hakimi - who made his debut at 18 years 10 months 27 days earlier this month.

After regular first-choice goalkeeper Ruben had suffered a finger injury, Deportivo boss Pepe Mel opted for the Nigerian ahead of the experienced Costel Pantilimon and was impressed by the youngster.

"A coach has to act according to the things he sees in training. He is only 18 and he can barely speak Spanish but I know what he can offer this club," Mel said.

Uzoho was born on October 28, 1998. He joined Qatari Aspire Academy in 2013 when he was 14. Uzoho started his footballing career as an attacker but was converted to a goalkeeper after being deemed "too slow" at the age of 12. In 2016, after impressing on a tournament in Barcelona, he joined Deportivo de La Coruna's Juvenilsquad.

Age rules meant that Uzoho could only become available to sign a contract with Dépor in January 2017; shortly after signing his contract, he started to train with the first team and was promoted to the reserves ahead of the new season. He made his senior debut on September 10 in a 3-0 Segunda Division B home win against Real Madrid Castilla.

Uzoho made his first team and La Liga debut on 15 October in a 0-0 away draw against Eibar. At the age of 18 years and 352 days, he became the youngest ever foreign goalkeeper to debut in La Liga and the second-youngest player to appear in the league behind Real Madrid's Achraf Hakimi.

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