There are over 3,000 miles between Onitsha in Nigeria and Birmingham in England, the journey made by Carl Ikeme's father in order to receive the university education he wanted. A little more than 30 years later, Ikeme Jnr is making this long trip in reverse in order to keep goal for the Super Eagles.
With an entirely different atmosphere to what he has been used to in the dressing room, the Wolverhampton Wanderers goalkeeper, 29, has been receiving an education all of his own, which he was happy to share with FIFA.com before Sunday Oliseh's side 2018 FIFA World Cup™ qualifier against Swaziland.
FIFA.com: Berti Vogts included you in a Nigeria squad in 2007, but you didn’t make your debut until this year. What happened?
Carl Ikeme: I got invited into the squad and got injured before the squad was due to meet up, so I couldn’t join up. So it was unfortunate I didn’t get to get started a bit earlier. I suppose everything happens for a reason though, so it was probably my time to come in when I did.
So, over seven and a half years passed. Did you think the ship might have sailed for you?
I never thought the ship had sailed. I had been playing regularly for a while and felt like I was doing quite well. I thought it might come, but the timing of this call-up was more of a surprise as we’d only played one game in the season and it was a strange time to get the call. That’s why I was more surprised.
How did this call-up come about?
Basically, I got a phone call from the club asking me if I was interested to speak to the coach. Obviously I said yes! I gave coach Sunday [Oliseh] a call and had a chat with him. He told me he was thinking about including me in the next squad and it went from there. I thought then maybe he’d call me, maybe he won’t, but then the following week I was included in the squad. During the chat, he told me what his plans were. Obviously he had just taken over, so he talked about his philosophy and how he wanted to be going forward. It was just to see if I was interested and what he’s looking to do for the future.
What was it like walking into that Nigerian dressing room for the first time?
It’s pretty strange really because, you know, I’m not a kid. You don’t know too many of the players. It’s not nerve-wracking, but it’s a bit first-day-of-school-like. You try to get to know people and build a sort of relationship, but you’re also trying to impress the coaches at the same time and prove to everyone that you should be there.
I’ve always known how big football is in Nigeria, but I don’t think until I actually played I realised the passion over there and just quite how much it means.
In terms of the dressing-room environment, how does the Nigeria's differ from the clubs you’ve been involved with in England? Is it, generally speaking, the same?
It’s definitely different. There’s a lot more singing and dancing, especially on the way to the game. Everyone’s singing on the bus. It’s a bit different than going to a local game here, where most lads are quiet on the coach going to a game, listening to their own music. Everyone with Nigeria gets involved singing and dancing on the way to the game.
Did you join in?
Of course! You have to. They drag your headphones off you if you don’t!
Does that permeate into the stands as well?
The fans are brilliant. They sing and dance and you can hear them during the game. When you look in the crowd after the match you still see them dancing, singing, cheering - especially if we win. It’s a bit more of a carnival atmosphere and it’s different to playing back in England, where it’s quite edgy with rivalries between the supporters and stuff like that. It’s a different experience, but it’s enjoyable.
How difficult has it been for you to replace the legendary Vincent Enyeama?
I wouldn’t say it was difficult. I was always aware that Vincent’s been the No1, captain and been an unbelievable goalkeeper for Nigeria, probably one of the best African keepers to ever play the game. I don’t really want to try and emulate someone else. I want to do it my own way and be the best I can be. I know people always want to compare goalkeepers to each other, but I’m just trying to concentrate on what I do and do the best for Nigeria.
Your debut against Tanzania must have been a dream for you. After the game you got praise from Vincent, Sunday and the likes of Jay-Jay Okocha and Kanu. What was it like hearing that?
It was a bit mad really. I’ve always known how big football is in Nigeria, but I don’t think until I actually played I realised the passion over there and just quite how much it means. Especially playing the first two games you get a sense of that. Thank God it went well for me! That helped, and the praise from the old legends and former players helped me settle in and made me feel like I’m a part of it.
In what ways do you think your experience with Nigeria has changed you as a person?
The thing that meant the most to me was how much it made my family proud - they were ecstatic. It made me feel really good that all my family in Nigeria were proud of me for representing my country. My granddad passed away a few years ago as well, so it was a good feeling to put the Nigeria shirt on knowing that he was looking down on me. The experience itself gives you a bit of confidence to know you’ve played international football and played against some of the best players in the world. It makes you believe you can play at this level, especially if you do well it gives you a bit of a boost. We’ve got some top talent in the team and when you’re playing with [John Obi] Mikel and [Ahmed] Musa it gives you a bit of confidence to say you can play on the same team with these people and you belong at the level. It gives you another goal as well to want to be a part of the next [squad].
I know you’ve always felt Nigerian, but has the experience of playing for them brought you closer to your roots?
Definitely. I’ve always been really close with the Nigerian side of my family. I always felt Nigerian. If anybody asked me I’d tell them my parents are from Nigeria, but I suppose being part of the squad and going to Nigeria hopefully more in the future will give me more sense of the culture. It’s difficult to be involved deep in the culture when you’re brought up in England, but going back to Nigeria a lot more will bring me a lot closer to that, and I’m looking forward to spending more time in Nigeria. I actually prefer to play international games in Nigeria than in Europe. You just get a better sense of the atmosphere and the people.