“We can’t have three of us between the posts.”
The simple statement of fact from Amos Benjamin, one of Nigeria No1 Akpan Udoh’s deputies at the FIFA U-17 World Cup, sums up the life of substitute goalkeepers at any major tournament. Benjamin and Chisom Chiaha have yet to play a single minute in Chile, but they are vital to the team, working with Udoh and their goalkeeping coach Emeka Amadi in training to keep the Remo Academy youngster sharp. With this rivalry for the No1 jersey, you would think the relationship between the three would be a touch tense. Not so. Speaking exclusively to FIFA.com at their hotel, alongside Amadi, all three are at ease in each other’s company, smiling and calm.
“I am so happy to have this guy on the pitch,” Chiaha says, nudging Udoh with a beaming grin. “As we are on the bench, we are ready, because anything can happen. But we are praying for him to keep him well. I want him to win the best goalkeeper award. It would be an honour for the three of us.”
The No21’s words reflect on the attitude of the team within a team, the goalkeeping ‘squad’. Any clean sheet is a clean sheet earned by all three, and by coach Amadi.
“Any of them can be in goal and I am proud of that, and I’m proud of them,” Amadi said. “I don’t like to train average goalkeepers, I want to train world class goalkeepers.”
We believe in ourselves that we are going to make it to the final.
The imposing Amadi has the experience to pass on to his back-up goalkeepers to be alert and ready. In the 1989 U-20 World Cup, the then Flying Eagles stopper, played a key part in the ‘Damman Miracle’. He came on at half-time against the Soviet Union, saw his side go 4-0 down before coming back to 4-4 and winning the penalty shoot-out, thanks to a stop by Amadi, to progress to the semi-finals.
“The No1 goalkeeper gets injured, the second goalkeeper that comes in gets a red card so what happens?” Amadi asks. “Everybody must be ready if we want to achieve our objective.”
“When I am at my academy, I am the first choice,” Chiaha adds. “I relax because any time I have a match I know I will play. Since I have come to the national team I am among the best. It will not be easy for me to make it again to be the first choice, but I work hard.”
The three ‘keepers, who roomed with one another leading up to the tournament, listen attentively to their coach whenever he speaks, and he has been passing on knowledge from his time as a player and coach in Germany. He names Oliver Kahn as an influence, and with the trio citing Manuel Neuer as an inspiration of their own, it is clear his message is getting through. Udoh’s performances so far in Chile have seen him comfortable with the ball at his feet, like the Bayern Munich man, and with three goals conceded in five matches, he has bettered Neuer’s record from the same stage of Brazil 2014.
“I am happy with the tournament so far,” Udoh said. “Anytime I keep a clean sheet, even in training when I don’t concede a goal, I’m happy for myself.”
Mexico await in a mouthwatering semi-final for Udoh and Co., a repeat of the 2013 final. “We believe they have a strong attack, we have a good defence,” Benjamin said. “I believe in my own team, the coach, the backroom staff. We believe in ourselves that we are going to make it to the final.”
With Benjamin and Chiaha his chief cheerleaders on the bench, Udoh will feel as though he has them by his side, attempting to repel every Mexican attack. Three goalkeepers between the posts not in body perhaps, but at least in spirit.