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Why does Nigeria love Carl Ikeme?

Carl Ikeme's retirement from football on Friday sadly came as little surprise to Nigerian football fans.

Since his diagnosis for acute leukaemia a year ago, there was only the faintest hope that he would return to football.

That spark flickered bright for a little while when the goalkeeper announced in June that he was in full remission, but was extinguished this weekend in a short social media post.

With just 10 caps, Ikeme was unable to build up enough of a body of work to find his way into any conversation about the greats of Nigerian football. It's a shame, as the evidence of his limited caps showed he well could have become one of the nation's finest stoppers, despite the late start to his international career.

However, the 32-year-old did enough to write his own legend, and this is why his departure has led to such an outpouring of emotion across Nigeria.

Exactly why are Nigerians so attached to Ikeme? Here are the three main reasons...

He was in the right place at the right time

Not many will remember that Ikeme has been in and around the Super Eagles conversation from around as far back as 1997, when then-coach Berti Vogts named him in a provisional squad for an 2008 African Cup of Nations qualifier against Uganda.

However, it took nearly a decade for the goalkeeper to make his debut, after long-term first-choice and captain Vincent Enyeama quit in the wake of a very public bust-up with coach Sunday Oliseh.

Ikeme was suddenly thrust into the thick of action, and while the responsibility might have proved too much for some, Ikeme instantly stepped into the breach and was an immediate hit.

His presence, his command of the area and his undoubted talent ensured that, while the hole left by Enyeama would remain a humongous one to fill, much of it was covered with Carl in goal.

This was never more so the case than in Nigeria's opening World Cup qualifier away to Zambia in Ndola. It was his last game for the national team, and his heroics helped preserve Nigeria's three points when the Super Eagles were under near intolerable pressure.

It was perfect timing for a man who would have been thinking his best hope of International football at that age would be as a member of the supporting cast.

Green and white pride

There is always the lingering suggestion that players not born or raised in Nigeria do not have the same passion for the shirt as those born and raised in the country.

As fallacious as this claim has been proven to be, starting with the likes of Reuben Agboola, through Abbey George, Osaze Odemwingie, and now William Troost-Ekong and Leon Balogun among a rash of others, the sentiment persists.

In his short time with the Super Eagles, Ikeme was the very epitome of a player who bled green and white.

Fully committed to the cause, the goalkeeper was always wholly present, both in training and on gameday. With barely any time to settle into the squad, he still found time to help others around him, as Ikechukwu Ezenwa acknowledges.

"He helped me a lot," the goalkeeper told KweséESPN. "He was always talking to me, showing me areas where I could improve my game and making sure that all of us goalkeepers were working together as brothers for the good of the team."

A player and a gentleman

Mikel John Obi is the captain and undoubted leader of the team, but Ikeme had a quiet aura of strength around him that saw not only other players but fans and even media gravitate towards him.

Not being used to the local system of being accosted for interviews and pictures at every turn, Ikeme quickly adjusted, and his humility shone through on every occasion.

Always available for media duties the goalie also made himself accessible to fans whenever possible.

Not only did he do it, he did so without the slightest of airs.

Although he remained professional in his interactions, he was always willing to stop for a quick word, a quick picture and a handshake. While the smile was not so easy to break, it was clear there was no malice intended, and when it did break out, was like a ray of sunshine.

The fact that Ikeme was trending all over Nigeria on the day of his announcement is positive proof that he is in the hearts of Nigerians, football fans or not.

All of this explains why former Chelsea star Celestine Babayaro has suggested that Ikeme be made a Nigerian football ambassador.

The goodwill he commands both among Nigerians and globally, the genuine love Nigerians have for him, would ensure that he'd be a wise pick by the NFF.


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