Nigeria goalkeeper Maduka Okoye has confirmed Dutch Eredivise giants, Ajax are interested in his services and have contacted his club, Sparta Rotterdam.
The Super Eagles number goalkeeper had earlier referred to the reported interest as a rumour but has now confirmed that Ajax, who will be without their number one goalie, André Onana until February 2022 because of a doping ban have indeed made a move.
“It was all swift, but it is true,” Okoye said in an exclusive interview with Transfermarkt. “Ajax has phoned Sparta but not me or my agency Prime11. I haven’t talked to them directly.”
Ajax boss Edwin van der Sar—one of the best goalkeepers in history—phoned Sparta’s sporting director Henk van Stee.
“I have a very close relationship with van Stee and my coach Henk Fraser and I am sure that should it become concrete with Ajax, I will be the first to find out about it,” Okoye said. “A rumor of this magnitude reflects my current performances. I give everything in training and during games. I do it for the team, the fans, and the people around me. We have one common goal: to stay in the league. And should I benefit from my performances then that is a bonus.”
Okoye however believes he needs to consider all offers carefully and, left to him, would want to stay at Sparta for one or two more seasons where he can feature regularly.
“I think it would be a good idea for a big team to buy me but then loan me back for one or two years to Sparta,” Okoye said. “That way Sparta could earn some money and I can continue to play regularly, to develop my game. When the new club is ready to hand me the number one spot then I could move there—similar to how Chelsea has done it in the past.”
The Nigeria goalkeeper maintains that playing time is the most important aspect at the moment. “Right now my focus is on staying in the league and qualifying for the Africa Cup with the national team,” Okoye said. “I will fly to Africa next week and together with my Nigerian brothers I will give everything for the country and our fans.” But should a club like Ajax make an offer, then he will discuss it with Sparta and his agency.
Ajax aside, there are several other clubs interested. “The press found out about Ajax and this is now a public topic but there are also big clubs from England interested and one great club from Italy as well as Belgium, both have talked to my agency already,” Okoye said. “But until the summer I will focus on playing, there is work to be done and goals to be achieved.”
The five times Nigerian national team player now has to debate whether a jump to a top club like Ajax is coming too early. Would he be ready to play at a top club?
“Here at Sparta, I really have everything you could wish for as a young player, both in terms of sport and people. I have a great coaching team and a great squad,” Okoye said. “We all work very hard together and are like a family. The club management is 100 per cent behind me. I’ve been the number one for over 20 games and I won’t give up this position without a fight until the last matchday and beyond.”
At his age it is important to play as often as possible—that might not be possible at a club like Ajax. “I need to further cement my position at the national team,” Okoye said. “As long as I have enough to eat, have a roof over my head and stay healthy, it is enough for me to just play. The rest will come. I feel fantastic at the moment and I don’t take anything for granted but I also work very hard for my success. I was never given anything and there were never many who believed in me.”
Okoye found that after his breakthrough, many agents and people from the football business all of a sudden want to have contact with him. “Now many people write me, they find me great and that big teams are looking at me, they always knew I would be a star, it is typical for this business,” Okoye said. “I don’t let that blind me, however. I am not a little boy anymore and I can differentiate between real and false promises. I am focused and believe in God, my family, and my friends and I have a super management thanks to Prime 11.
Okoye has every reason to be confident. Born in Düsseldorf, Germany, the goalkeeper first reached prominence when Gernot Rohr—after being recommended by the former Fortuna Düsseldorf sporting director Lutz Pfannenstiel—nominated him to the Nigerian national team in October 2019—he then made his debut in a friendly against Brazil (1-1). Nine months later, Okoye joined Sparta Rotterdam, where he conquered the number one job from Benjamin van Leer.
“Prime 11 opened the door for a transfer to Sparta. The owner Wessel Weezenberg has good contacts with the club and is also well connected both nationally and internationally,” Okoye said about the transfer. Weezenburg, among others, also counts Ajax’s super talent Perr Schuurs to his clients. “A lot of agencies and agents promised me all sorts of things without keeping their promises. Prime 11 acted and brought me from the Regionalliga to the Dutch first division.”
In the beginning, the keeper, whose father is from Nigeria and the mother from Germany, played for Sparta’s second team in the Tweede Divisie (third division).
“I think that went down very well with the 1st team,” Okoye said. “I worked hard and they had to give me an opportunity, which when it finally arrived I made the most out of it.” Okoye certainly impressed and the Dutch national team coach Frank de Boer and former Ajax legend, who still has quite a bit of influence at this former club even called him one of the best keepers in the Eredivisie.
Okoye is also happy Francis Uzoho, the former Nigeria number one goalkeeper is back after a long time on the sidelines due to injury. The Sparta goalie knows Nigeria gaffer, Gernot Rohr will be banking on him in the two Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers later this month but will not mind the return of Uzoho to the team.
“I am very happy for Francis to be back and to train with him and to step on the gas. We all love our national team, our fans and only want to give the best for our country.”
Rohr will also have a big word when it comes to a potential transfer. “I will be with the Nigerian national team and have a conversation with him,” Okoye said.
“I have a close relationship with him. He gave me a big chance against Brazil when I was still the goalkeeper for Fortuna’s second team. I am very thankful towards him, and his opinion matters. Gernot Rohr has often backed me up, especially after the 4:4 against Sierra Leone, after which there was a lot of talk and doubt. But I feel very strong mentally and physically and I’m going to the national team with a lot of self-confidence.”
Rohr gave him a great chance: “He let me play against Brazil when I was still goalkeeper of the 2nd team of Fortuna Düsseldorf. So I owe him a lot and that’s why his opinion is important to me,” says Okoye, who hopes that Rohr, who at the age of 67 is still under contract with the Nigerian Football Federation until the end of 2022, will stay on for a long time: “Not only because I’m currently playing, but because he’s very good for our team, does a very good job and we can and will still achieve a lot with him.”