Wolves’ official announcement has called time on a short but sweet international career for the 32-year-old.
Carl Ikeme’s association with football has officially come to an end. While it was always going to be hard to rebound from the leukaemia diagnosis which turned his world upside down in 2017, it was impossible to prepare for the finality of Wolves’ official statement.
Now 32, Ikeme was raised a wolf, then became an eagle.
In a tenure that was riddled with acrimony, accusation and attrition, he proved one of the few positives of Sunday Oliseh’s shortlived time at the helm. It was the former Super Eagles captain who gave him his international debut in an Africa Cup of Nations qualifier against Tanzania.
Nigeria has not always handled goalkeeping transitions well, although one must concede that it is not exactly a cinch to pull off. With their ability to continue well into their 30s, unlike outfielders, there is the danger of letting them run on too long. However, Ikeme’s arrival on the scene came as a matter of necessity, following the surprising decision of Vincent Enyeama to retire from the national team.
The peculiar circumstances lent him a somewhat messianic air in the eyes of the Nigeria faithful, appearing as he did at such an opportune time. That he then proceeded to look exceeding impressive on his debut made it even better.
With a toothless Super Eagles attack unable to muster any menace, it’s midfield devoid of any guile, and it’s defence shorn of all structure, the Wolves goalkeeper was literally the sole reason the game ended goalless. His tremendous reflex save from Thomas Ulimwengu in the second half lives long in the memory, but it was just the pick of a brilliant bunch.
“Carl Ikeme had a great game for us.” Oliseh admitted afterward. “He saved us from defeat.”
There had long been the impression that players eligible for European countries would only opt for Nigeria if they weren’t good enough.
Yet, here was a tall, commanding goalkeeper, in his prime and playing club football in England, and he was not only chuffed to be here, but he was actually quite excellent? Why are we so blest?
It was love at first sight, but a love that almost seemed fated not to last.
Before the cancer, there were the injuries. He missed the crucial return leg of the Afcon qualifier against Egypt, a 1-0 defeat which confirmed Nigeria’s absence from the 2017 edition.
He then missed the World Cup qualifier against Algeria in Uyo with a hip injury. As it turns out, his final game for the Super Eagles was the opening qualifier against Zambia in Ndola. There is a nice symmetry to the Ikeme love story: Zambia and Tanzania, where it ended and where it began, are contiguous; beyond land, they are now connected by Ikeme’s brilliance.
It would have been unfathomable, watching him wave a rattled defence into position after repelling wave after wave of Zambian attack, that he was waving goodbye.
The depth of disappointment following the revelation of his cancer diagnosis months later was like the excision of a painful tooth, only to find the root rotting. It felt like a cruel joke: relief quickly turning to grief, which in turn quickly became panic.
With the World Cup on the horizon, who was supposed to be in goal?
For the second time in two years, the Super Eagles had to deal with Enyeama’s retirement. Ultimately, it led to the discovery of Francis Uzoho, but few would have begrudged Ikeme his World Cup moment; he only featured in three qualifiers, but they were hugely important ones: the two-legged play-off against Swaziland, and that crucial victory over the Chipolopolo.
He was in goal just a handful of times for the Super Eagles, but that was all it took to win a nation’s hearts. He leaves unblemished, with no losses on his record, and while he may not have burnt long, he certainly burnt bright.