Enyimba goalkeeper Theophilus Afelokhai says he will “put in all his best” and is “ready to face the battle” with “more than a friend” Ikechukwu Ezenwa for the number one jersey when he reports to the camp of the Super Eagles for the upcoming 2019 African Cup of Nations qualifier against South Africa and friendly match against Uganda later this month.
It is a first call-up to the main squad of the Super Eagles since 2015 for the former Kano Pillars FC goaltender who despite putting up a string of exceptional performances for Enyimba in their run to the semi-final of the CAF Confederation Cup, has been consistently overlooked by Eagles handler Gernot Rohr who, ironically has always preferred Afelokhai’s understudy at club level – Ikechukwu Ezenwa.
An injury to Eagles’ first choice goalkeeper Francis Uzoho has now presented a “very happy” Afelokhai with the opportunity he says he “has been praying for” to prove his worth and one many Nigerians feel is long overdue.
“I feel fulfilment,” Afelokhai told busybuddiesng.com about being called up to the Super Eagles. “I really give thanks to Almighty God that made it possible and I’m very happy for the call-up and it’s what I’ve been praying for and God has done and I’m very happy about it.”
The goalkeeper is certainly no stranger to the national team set-up having enjoyed call-ups under the late Stephen Keshi and was on the bench for friendly matches against the Ivory Coast, Uganda and South Africa in 2015. He was also part of the home-based Eagles contingent to Morocco for the 2018 African Nations Championship although he failed to make a single appearance at the tournament. In the absence of a clear-cut number two to the injured Uzoho, Afelokhai who was voted best goalkeeper in the Nigerian Professional Football League in 2014, knows that this call-up represents perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to leave an indelible impression on Rohr and ensure that he shows he can be a reliable option for the Eagles both now and in the future and it is an opportunity he fully intends to grab with both hands.
“I’m really going to put in all my best and I will leave the rest to God,” Afelokhai says. “I know when I have the opportunity to play, by God’s grace, I will do very well because I know what I can do.”
The three-time NPFL champion clearly has an unshakeable belief in his ability and has had to endure a long wait to earn a recall to the national team, it would perhaps be of no surprise to Nigerians were he to approach camp with an impatience that leaves no one in doubt about his ambition to be the Eagles’ number one goalkeeper. The 30-year old though would prefer to do what he’s done all through his career – patiently work on convincing the coach whilst respecting the existing hierarchy in the team set-up.
“I know in life step by step makes a long journey,” he philosophized. “You can’t just go there and say you want to be the number one. No. People are there before me, I just need to put in my best and if the coach says my best is good enough and he needs to play me, I would be glad and I will play well for him and for Nigeria.”
The 30-year old faces an interesting situation in the national team where he is set to compete against two of his pals Ezenwa and Daniel Akpeyi for the single goalkeeping slot and it is at times like this that friendship takes a backseat to ambition. Having been relegated to the bench at Enyimba, nominal Eagles number two goalkeeper Ezenwa could perhaps be justified in feeling a little trepidation about Afelokhai’s presence within the national team setup. Afelokhai though, maintains that all three goalkeepers share a strong bond both off and on the pitch and are always supportive of one another with a genuine interest in seeing one another succeed. It is a bond he believes would serve the Super Eagles well.
“We are not just friends, he’s more than a friend to me, we are like brothers,” Afelokhai told busybuddiesng.com about his relationship with Ezenwa. “I’m always there for him in the national team whether we are together [or not], praying for him, backing him up and also the club side, I’m always there for him too, whenever he’s playing. Likewise him, whenever I’m playing too he’s always there for me.
“Apart from football, you have to have a good relationship, you don’t know tomorrow because one day we will leave football and life continues. As for me, I have a good mind to him and I believe he also has a good mind for me, he helps me play together as a brother because we don’t know what tomorrow will say.
“And apart from him too, Akpeyi is my good friend and he knows that I have a good heart, without my good heart I will not be where I am today. People have prayed for me and God has heard them, I believe we have to work together as one family and as friends”.