Carl Ikeme was born in England’s Second City and retains it as his home while striving to reach the Premier League with Wolverhampton Wanderers. But he has a flourishing other life, in Africa.
The 29-year-old Brummie – the term for an inhabitant of industrial Birmingham – is the new safe pair of hands for Nigeria’s Super Eagles, setting out on the difficult mission to fill the gloves of Vincent Enyeama, the country’s undisputed number one for 12 years.
Eight seasons on from when he was first selected for the squad, Ikeme has found opportunity knocking again and grasped it superbly. National treasures Nwankwo Kanu and Jay-Jay Okocha have been united in their praise.
Flattered though he was to hear the former Arsenal striker saying ‘we gain a son’ after his debut in Tanzania last September had turned into a starring role with his saves during a 0-0 draw in the Africa Cup of Nations qualifier in Dar es Salaam, this taking-to-hearts is no lopsided arrangement. Ikeme’s feelings for his family’s ancestral homeland are equally strong.
“The timing of the call-up to the squad was a surprise because it was 2007 when I was first named in it,” he says. “Berti Vogts was in charge then and it wasn’t too long after Glenn Hoddle had given me my Wolves debut. Unfortunately, I had to withdraw through injury.
“I had long spells out of the Wolves team after that and time on loan elsewhere. Although I have regained a regular place in the last few years (he now has around 170 appearances for the club), I thought it was a wind-up from a mate when I had this call last summer. I was actually out of the side, with Emiliano Martinez just signed from Arsenal, but things happen when you don’t expect them to.”
Ikeme, 6 foot 3 inches tall and unfailingly laidback as Wolves near the end of an underwhelming second season back in Championship football, may speak with the twang of his West Midlands birthplace but is no innocent on this vast continent.
More than once, he has used the phrase ‘I haven’t dropped from the moon’ if asked how he is coping with the African experience. When we meet at Wolves’ training ground, three miles from their famous Molineux home, Ikeme is at pains to stress that he tries to fully embrace a culture with which his upbringing familiarized him.
“People seem to assume that because I live in Birmingham and was born nearby in Sutton Coldfield that Nigerian life was alien to me,” he says. “But I had been there many times from the age of eight – for funerals and family things. I was certainly aware of my roots.”
“I went about four years ago when my dad, Ikemefuna Ikeme, was made a chief of the village he’s from, near Onitsha in the east of the country. It’s an ancestry, bloodline, thing but the ceremony went on for two days and he hardly slept. He stayed in a shrine where my granddad is buried.”
“Dad came to England in about 1983 to study computing at Aston University. He still lives in Birmingham and I was brought up watching plenty of Aston Villa and Birmingham City.”
“I have tried cooking a few Nigerian dishes but I’m nothing like as good as him, so he brings something round each Monday. Stew, with chicken, goat and mutton, are typical. So are yams and rice. His pepper soup blows my mouth off!”
“I have three or four aunts and uncles over there, some in Lagos. One or two family members were doubtful when I went into football and thought I should get a proper job! But they can see now I made the right choice.”
Ikeme, restricted to a solitary game when Wolves rubbed shoulders with the Premier League elite from 2009-2012, lifts his shirt to show how family pride has influenced his appointments with a tattooist on Wolverhampton’s outskirts. Onora, his middle name and the one given to his great granddad on his dad’s side, appears high on his chest. Those of his dad and granddad show on his left arm. His mother’s dad, in military uniform, is seen on his stomach. His Dad has accompanied him for all his early Nigerian games.
The workload of Wolves’ 46-game league season dictates that trips have been about little more than airports, hotels, training grounds and stadiums. The window on his other world should open wider, though, in a few weeks’ time.
“I will be hoping to stay for an extra few days as long as I am in the squad against Chad in June,” he said. “I plan to take my daughter Mila, who is two-and-a-half, over for the first time.”
“It would be good to learn more about the culture and get better at the language. I’m not the only player to have been born in Europe, so the coach speaks in Pidgin English and am picking up bits of Nigerian as well as having some tapes to listen to.”
“The travelling has been an experience. It’s exhausting because it’s seven or eight hours to Abuja, then a few more hours if it’s an away match. But I’d still rather do that than have the games in Europe. There was a friendly against Cameroon in Belgium where we still had good support but I am keen to visit Nigeria as much as possible.”
“In England, the bus can be quiet. Some players have headphones on, some are having a chat. With the national team, there is singing and dancing in the aisles. That eradicated any nerves I had on the way to the Tanzania game. It’s all in English, a bit religious and spiritual… someone starts it off and everyone joins in. They have to! It’s more than gentle swaying. There’s a lot of clapping and foot stamping. It’s very rousing and inspirational.”
In case I’m not getting the picture, Ikeme accesses film on his mobile phone of the fans, complete with small band, welcoming the bus in similar fashion for a game against Swaziland.
“It’s good for togetherness because it creates a bond. I might try it on the Wolves lads!” he says.
“We pray together on the bus and before and after training and before and after a game; some Christian, some Muslim.”
So who inspired him? What are his dreams in an international career that is still at the fledgling stage but with an encouraging proportion of clean sheets?
“My heroes were Daniel Amokachi with his famous goal celebration at Everton and in the 1994 World Cup – and Kanu, of course.”
“As well as reaching the Premier League with Wolves, my aim is to qualify and play in the Africa Cup of Nations and then the World Cup in Russia in 2018. That would be a dream. We have a young side, so results should get better.”
“Long term, I would like to do something to help in Nigeria. I have looked into setting up a charity there. It’s not just about chucking money at it. I would like it to be something football-based so I can give back to the people in the community when I have finished playing.”
You can take a man out of Nigeria, but you can’t take the Nigerian out of him.
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