Super Eagles' Daniel Akpeyi says mental strength key defence against critics, trolls

Nigeria and Kaizer Chiefs goalkeeper Daniel Akpeyi tells ESPN that his mental strength allows him to take responsibility for his own mistakes. PHILL MAGAKOE/AFP via Getty Images

Nigeria goalkeeper Daniel Akpeyi says his mental strength keeps him going in the face of the onslaught of invective regularly sent his way.

Akpeyi, 33, has endured constant criticism from his compatriots after high-profile errors while keeping goal for Nigeria.

He was in goal when Nigeria lost for the first time in a competitive game against South Africa, during the qualifiers for the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations. An error also led to a goal by Argentina in a 2018 pre-World Cup friendly, and he was blamed for being out of position when Riyad Mahrez curled in a superb free kick for Algeria with their 2019 Africa Cup of Nations semifinal finely balanced at 1-1.

"I must say that maybe I was not in the right position where I should be... but not to take anything away from Mahrez; he has scored such free-kicks before at his club against great goalkeepers. But we won't say that we won't learn from our mistakes and others' mistakes."

These mistakes mean the now carries the perception of being a goalkeeper with at least one mistake waiting to happen, but the Kaizer Chiefs custodian says he has learned to deal with it by shutting out criticism and staying strong.

"What helps me is my mental strength," Akpeyi told ESPN.

"I really don't follow the news about what is going on, especially when it comes to soccer from Africa and this part of the world.

"Thank God I grew up with a mentor who taught me how to be mentally strong. With all I have learnt from my mentor, I can't give up on myself. I am not going to prove a point to anybody, I only have to prove a point to myself that whatever I have been trained with actually works."

That mental strength allows Akpeyi to take responsibility for his own mistakes. Not the least of which is that Mahrez free kick. Speaking about it for the first time since the Afcon, Akpeyi concedes he could have done better.

"I must say that maybe I was not in the right position where I should be," he told ESPN.

"My coaches always say that if the position of the set play is very close. he will probably have 20% chance of scoring on the other side. So I should have shifted a little.

"But not to take anything away from Mahrez; he has scored such free kicks before at his club against great goalkeepers. But we won't say that we won't learn from our mistakes and others' mistakes.

"I take the blame for everything because it is what it is. As a goalkeeper, they won't look at what you have done before. I remember they had a couple of chances in the first half that I made one-on-one saves. But those ones won't count in people's eyes. Because no matter how much a goalkeeper saves, it is the one mistake he makes that people remember."

Despite that, the 33 year old says he had to brace himself for the inevitable from his fellow countrymen.

"At the back of my head I just knew that Nigerians will come at me again, but you just have to stand your ground. It has happened to the best in the world. It is going to happen again, you won't be the last. But if you keep this in your head, it is going to drain you.

"At the end of the day, the people that tried to put you down will rejoin over this. So be a professional, take it, learn from it, and go on. So when I got all that backlash, as a human, you will feel it; but I laughed at it and shook it off.

"Imagine that a week later, he scored a similar goal in his club and the world did not come down.

"But because it is Akpeyi, it was very easy for the bell to ring in people's mind that Akpeyi is this, Akpeyi is that."

Akpeyi takes criticism from fans in his stride, but words from an international teammate cut him to the quick.

After the Argentina friendly in 2018, when he picked up the ball outside his box, leading to a free kick and a goal, Akpeyi says his teammate was on the phone predicting the end of the goalkeeper's international career

"When we got to the hotel, I overheard one of my teammates in the other room telling somebody on the phone 'I don't think he should be invited to the national team again; how can he concede that kind of goal.'

"My own team mate!

"He was just outside the room next to mine and talking. This is a professional footballer who plays in Europe.

"But I thank God, because it is by His Grace that I am here."

And Super Eagles coach Gernot Rohr, who never stopped believing in the former junior international.

"He thinks football differently," Akpeyi said of his international coach.

"Especially with the pressure that he has been under not to invite me again, and I know the pressure has been coming on him really hard. But he understands the dynamics of football and tries to hold his ground. He knows what he wants,

"A couple of times, he has told me to be strong, that he understood what is happening.but as long as I am getting game time in my team, I will improve and I will do well.

"And for now, he has not seen anybody else that he can bring in to replace me."

Rohr replaced Akpeyi at halftime of the Argentina game, but the goalkeeper said it was not because of his error.

"He had already told me that he invited this new boy, Francis Uzoho, and I will play the first half and then he will bring him in for the second half. So he did not sub me in the first half because of the goal.

"At the Nations Cup, the same thing happened. He had already told us that he would want all the players to play."

Rohr is not the only coach who believes in Akpeyi, as he was in a similar situation at Kaizer Chiefs in South Africa's Premier Soccer League earlier this year.

With Itumeleng Khune injured, Akpeyi stepped in. But when the South Africa No. 1 returned on the eve of the Soweto Derby against Orlando Pirates in February, the majority of the Amakhosi faithful wanted the Nigerian dropped to the bench.

But Chiefs coach Ernst Middendorp -- another German -- stood his ground and Akpey's self-belief saw him excel spectacularly, earning man-of-the-match honours.

"There was this debate over who would play and who would not play because Itu is back and all that,"Akpeyi said.

"I respect Itu because he has paid his dues. So if he has a whole lot of supporters backing him to play, he deserves it 100%. Again, I am not fighting for position with anybody, but sometimes the fans do not understand the dynamics of football and they believed that since Itu was back, whether I am playing or not, the coach should just throw him back into the team.

"But the coach is that kind of person who sticks to his instincts and doesn't get swayed by anybody's decision. He just stood his ground.

"After Itu came back he was playing cup games to get his match fitness back. So the coach made it clear that the should go on playing cup games while I should continue with the league.

"The atmosphere wasn't too conducive but I had to be mentally strong because I understand even some club legends wanted him to play. But the coach stood his ground and gave me the nod. So I made up my mind to go into the game to prove a point that we wanted to win the derby, and Akpeyi is not the Daniel Akpeyi they think. So I had a point to prove and I just had to make sure I don't disappoint the coach and the people who believed in me."

Akpeyi may not be everyone's favorite goalkeeper, but as long as he has the confidence of his coaches, and performs as well as he did in the Soweto derby, it will be hard to shake him off without good reason.