It seems strange to say it about a 31-year old, but 2013-2014 has been something of a breakout season for Vincent Enyeama – at least in terms of the big European leagues. The Nigerian goalkeeper will take the field against Iran for his country’s World Cup opener this Monday full of confidence, after a spectacular season with Lille.
The young Vincent chose to become a goalkeeper despite being relatively short for the position, standing at a little under six feet tall, and made his debut for Idom Stars aged only 17. After one season with his local club, he moved to Nigerian powerhouse Enyimba, with whom he made 100 appearances and twice won the CAF Champions League. In total, over the six seasons of his fledgling career spent in Nigeria, Enyeama played just under 200 matches, forging a reputation as a calming presence behind his defence, and an excellent shot-stopper. Not only that but he also ended that period of his career with 11 goals to his name, having followed in the footsteps of Jose-Luis Chilavert and Rogerio Ceni et al in becoming penalty-taking keepers.
In 2005 Enyeama decided to look abroad to further his career, and followed the trail blazed by compatriot Yakubu Ayegbeni in moving to Israel. He signed for Bnei Yehuda Tel Aviv and became an immediate hero, helping the small club to qualify for the UEFA Cup. His performances caught the eye of the bigger teams and he moved to Bnei Yehuda’s bigger rivals Hapoel Tel Aviv, whom he helped to qualify for the Champions League, first with his excellent league performances, and then by scoring the opening goal from the penalty spot in the qualifying match against Salzburg.
After six seasons, Vincent was on the move again and, in 2011, was signed up by newly crowned Ligue 1 winners Lille, to serve as back-up to Mickaël Landreau. Restricted to a handful of minor appearances in his first year, he spent 2012-13 back in Israel on loan to Maccabi Tel Aviv, missing out on the goalkeeping upheaval at Lille, as Lille lost Landreau in a dispute with coach Rudi Garcia, and Steeve Elana lost form.
Still, René Girard took over from Garcia for the beginning of the 2013-14 season and made Enyeama the starting keeper, behind his new-look defence. Surely even the most optimistic of Dogues fans could not have expected such a great season from Lille’s backline.
Supported by the likes of Beria, Kjaer, Basa and Souaré, Enyeama conceded only 26 Ligue 1 goals all season, keeping 21 clean sheets in the process. The defence was particularly imperious in the autumn of 2013, as they went eleven straight matches without conceding. At times during this period, Enyeama seemed to be in some kind of state of grace as he kept out team after team, winning two consecutive Ligue 1 player of the month awards – a rare achievement for any player, let alone a goalkeeper. Highlights included a penalty save that reduced Remy Cabella to tears and an outstanding performance in which he pulled off a string of saves to provide the foundations for Lille to hand Monaco their first league defeat of the season.
With the clock standing at 1,035 minutes unbeaten, Enyeama was second only to former Bordeaux keeper Gaëtan Huard’s record of 1,176 minutes, when Lille visited – of all places – Bordeaux on 8 December. 27 minutes later, Enyeama’s invincibility had come to an end as Landry N’Guemo’s wickedly deflected shot wrongfooted him. Vincent’s reaction? A huge smile, which won him as many friends as his goalkeeping heroics.
Enyeama’s demeanour certainly makes him easy to like. A devout Christian, no doubt also marked by his survival of a horrific car crash when in Nigeria, in which two people died and another was seriously injured, he is impressively modest, deflecting all of the compliments that come his way, either in the direction of God, or his team-mates.
Internationally, Enyeama has been well rewarded for his club consistency over the years. As well as playing in five CANs (finally getting his winner’s medal in 2013), this will be Enyeama’s third World Cup, holding England to a clean sheet in his one appearance in 2002, and starting for Nigeria in their disappointing 2010 campaign. His international experience is such that he is in a private race with Joseph Yobo to become the first Nigerian to win 100 caps. Although both are in the 90s, the former Everton and Marseille defender is slightly ahead – and could even reach 100 during the World Cup, should Nigeria reach the latter stages.
Enyeama will get there though and, it will be a rich reward for someone who, in the modern football world of self-regard and self-promotion, represents a throwback to the good old values of modesty, team ethic and, above all, love of the game.