Okoye vs Nwabali: Who gets Finidi’s nod of approval?

Maduka Okoye's return to the Super Eagles fold is great news for him — and he has made that known.

“I am very happy to return to the national team,” Okoye said, as seen on the official website of Udinese, the Italian top-flight club he plays for.

“It is a great honor for me and my family to play for Nigeria,” he added.

The goalkeeper has been in and out of the fold ever since his blunder that saw Tunisia reach the quarter-finals of the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) at the expense of Nigeria. 

That incident earned Okoye the ire of his countrymen, expressed in the form of abuse and even death threats on social media.

It is an episode Okoye, quite understandably, has struggled to put behind him, imposing on himself an exile that has seen him skip several assignments.

He has only made it as far as the bench in that period — thrice, most recently in September 2023 — with his sole appearance in that period coming in a low-profile friendly against the Algeria ‘B’ national team in September 2022. He marked that occasion by conceding another soft goal, improving neither his personal confidence nor his public image.

Maduka Okoye @ Icon Sport
Photo by Icon Sport

But now it appears Okoye is on top of his game again, and he now turns his attention and efforts towards regaining his standing as the team's first-choice goalkeeper on the back of a strong season for Udinese during which he played a starring role in securing Serie A survival.

Okoye would know, though, that a starting berth in the national team is not guaranteed. While he has been away, his place has been auditioned for, and eventually claimed by Chippa United's Stanley Nwabali, following a very impressive 2024 AFCON outing.

So then, who—between an ambitious returnee and a near-perfect incumbent—deserves the spot?

We consider the strengths and weaknesses of each contender.

Stanley Nwabali guarantees stability and exudes authority

Any case for Stanley Nwabali's continued deployment as No.1 should be built on two factors: the stability and authority he provides at the back.

Newly-appointed substantive head coach Finidi George would have very little incentive to replace a goalkeeper who has hardly put a foot wrong since being entrusted with a position that had been an unceasing source of worry for Nigerian fans. That aforementioned AFCON, where Nwabali proved as adept from open play as from 12 yards, left nobody in doubt as to his worthiness of the role.

Stanley Nwabali @ Icon Sport
Photo by Icon Sport

And it was a role he handled, not just with aplomb, but with great command, helped in no small part by the fact that he is a goalkeeper not shy to make his presence felt. Some prefer to take a quieter approach to discharging their duties between the sticks, but there is just something about extroverted types like Nwabali which reassures teammates as much as it intimidates opponents.

A team like Nigeria certainly needs that sort of aura, and Nwabali offers that in spades.

Maduka Okoye has age and a higher profile on his side

If Nwabali is the obviously more striking fellow on the pitch, Okoye's stature is felt off it — in the sense that he plays at a much higher level.

Surely, it does not take too many words to prove why Italy's Serie A is a massive upgrade on the level of competition that a goalkeeper faces regularly in South Africa's Premier Soccer League (even if the latter is one of the continent’s better divisions).

Okoye definitely proved himself up to that lofty standard, after dislodging the hitherto untouchable Marco Silvestri, at the end of 2023, to become Udinese's undisputed starter. 

Nigeria have not had a goalkeeper operating at such a height since Vincent Enyeama's days at Lille, and while this is no comparison between a legendary figure and the less-revered Okoye, it cannot be overstated just how much of an asset it is to have a player who competes in one of world football's major leagues.

Then there is the age factor.

Goalkeepers, like wine, generally get better with age, which is why it could be predicted with a fair degree of certainty that 27-year-old Nwabali would remain a reliable and formidable mainstay for Nigeria heading into the next decade or so.

Maduka Okoye @ Icon Sport
Photo by Icon Sport

Such received wisdom, however, works even more in favour of Okoye. Three years younger than Nwabali, the German-born goalkeeper has even longer to go in his career, with his best years well ahead of him.

If there are any regrets that Nigeria did not ‘discover’ Nwabali early enough, there will be absolutely none about Okoye. In the present, and with a view to the future, there is so much more that he can give his country.

Finidi has a big call to make

All this leaves Finidi with a nice luxury—not quite matching the depth he has in attack, but just as delightful—which presents one more elite option than he inherited from predecessor Jose Peseiro.

With that privilege, however, comes a weighty responsibility for the former Enyimba boss to make a decision that would be in the best interests of the team.

How he shuffles these cards—if he does at all—and plays them in the upcoming 2026 World Cup qualifiers and beyond, would be keenly monitored by fans and pundits alike.

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Godfred Budu

Godfred Budu, a Ghanaian sports journalist, brings a dynamic perspective to the field with over a decade of experience. Having contributed to esteemed platforms such as Kickgh.com and Inkandkicks.com. Godfred is recognised for his insightful commentary and in-depth analysis of African football.
His passion for storytelling and commitment to accuracy have established him as a trusted authority in sports journalism in Ghana, captivating audiences with his engaging narratives and unparalleled expertise.
Godfred holds a degree in Integrated Development Studies (Social and Development Administration option) from the University for Development Studies, Ghana.