Adversity molded Enyeama into leader
When Nigeria line up against Iran for their opening game of the World Cup on Monday, the man leading them out will be goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama. He will be performing his usual job of deputizing for Joseph Yobo as Nigeria captain, and it couldn't be a more fitting scene.
Not many players get to make their first international appearance in the cauldron that is the World Cup. Those numbers drop even lower for goalkeepers. After all, what coach wants to throw in a rookie goalkeeper with zero international and limited club experience?
Twelve years ago, Adegboye Onigbinde did. And Enyeama rewarded him with a performance -- the highlight of which was a gravity-defying reflex response to a Paul Scholes volley -- that left several mouths agape.
On the back of that performance, Enyeama became Nigeria's No. 1 goalkeeper following the post-World Cup retirement of Ike Shorunmu, now goalkeeping coach.
Enyeama has kept that position, however, not only by virtue of continuously raising the bar of his own performances, but also by fighting a one-man battle to keep his head in the midst of some of the most stinging criticism any player should have to endure.
But here's the irony. If current coach -- then assistant -- Stephen Keshi and other members of the technical staff led by Shaibu Amodu had not been fired before the 2002 World Cup, Enyeama would not have got that chance.
Getting handed a debut is one thing. Keeping it -- well, that is quite another matter. And 91 caps later, Enyeama has been through more than his fair share of tribulation.
It all started from one game. First choice at Enyimba, who were gunning for a first-ever African Champions League title, Enyeama and the troops travelled to Egypt to honour their group-phase fixture against Ismaili.
Chock-full of the cream of players, carefully skimmed from the top of the crop and managed by the wily Kadiri Ikhana, Enyimba looked an unstoppable force of nature heading into that game.
Whether it was from overconfidence, poor tactics or players just not turning up, it hardly matters. What does matter is that it ended up as a total shambles. Enyimba lost 6-1, with Enyeama leaking four of those before he was substituted for Dele Aiyenugba.
While there was plenty of blame to pass around, and then some, most of the vitriol was directed at Enyeama.
Things were never quite the same after. His ability was called into question before and after every game, whether for Enyimba or Nigeria. The slightest error, whether it led to a goal or not, was put through a microscope and offered up as "evidence" that he would never be a world-class keeper.
In fairness, there was some justification for an element of doubt at that point.
Despite his excellent shot-stopping abilities, his handling of crosses was dodgy at best, and his command of the area questionable.
But he continued to improve, gradually ironing out the kinks in his game, and it was certainly not for football reasons that Berti Vogts demoted him to third choice, almost forcing Enyeama to walk out of a training camp to prepare the team for the 2008 Nations Cup.
"I play every game under pressure," he told me in one conversation back then. "But if I listen to everything people say, I won't focus on my job."
And focus he did. It was the only way to keep out the noise. Some so venomous that nobody deserved to be at the end of it, least of all a player representing his country.
Helping him keep out that noise has been Promise, his wife of eight years. Every night while he is in camp, the Enyeamas spend hours on Skype, and end up praying together along with their three children.
"She gives me strength. No matter what anybody else says, it is what she tells me that is important, and she has always believed in me, trusted me," he says.
That support is what saw him go on to excel in Israel, then put down another marker at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
But -- and this both surprising and a tad uncharitable -- it is only in the past couple of years that perception about Enyeama has changed for the better back home in Nigeria.
Helped by that 2010 showing, the 2013 Nations Cup win and a more than decent clean-sheet record in France, recognition has led to the respect he has deserved for so long.
Mistakes will happen sometimes, and goalkeeper errors are scrutinized more than any. But overall, Enyeama has proved that self-belief, mental strength and hard work are ultimately just as critical as talent.
As he joins Yobo in the chase for 100 caps (he would have been there already but for Vogts), it is only appropriate that he be the man leading Nigeria into this World Cup.
Colin Udoh is the editor of KickOffNigeria.com and African football correspondent for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @ColinUdoh.