CHASING THE BALL DOWN THE LEFT FLANK, Kanu steals it from Chelsea right-back Albert Ferrer and finds himself confronted by Ed de Goey, the keeper having rushed out of goal to close the Nigerian down. Selling de Goey a dummy, he jinks the ball past the Dutchman and finds himself practically on the byline and looks set to cross. Instead, Kanu curls the ball into the net from a seemingly impossible angle, scoring his third goal and the last-minute winner in a remarkable comeback win.
It was a goal that really epitomised what Nwankwo Kanu was all about: persistence, trickery, unpredictability and an element of almost clumsiness. Opposition players would struggle to deal with Kanu not just because of his undeniable talent and technique but also because he was so impossible to predict that it often felt as if even he didn’t know what he would do next.
That goal is regularly featured in lists for the best Premier League goals of all time, and yet Kanu’s reputation in England is not that of one of the greatest African footballers of all time. During the later years of his career, Kanu became a figure of fun in English football. As his pace left him, he became the victim of rumours that uncomfortably circle top African players in regards to his age. As Kanu continued to play for Portsmouth into his late 30s, jokes were regularly made that the Nigerian was, in fact, much older. Regardless of whether those jokes and rumours have any truth to them – it has been known for African nations to falsify paperwork of players so that they remain eligible for
As Kanu continued to play for Portsmouth into his late 30s, jokes were regularly made that the Nigerian was, in fact, much older. Regardless of whether those jokes and rumours have any truth to them – it has been known for African nations to falsify paperwork of players so that they remain eligible for age-restricted competitions – it is a shame that for most football fans, Kanu is remembered for his ageing struggles rather than his earlier exploits in Europe and with the Super Eagles.
It is worth remembering then that Kanu has collected a huge amount of silverware throughout his career. Even before making the trip to Europe, he would pick up a title during his breakthrough season for Iwuanyanwu Nationale at just 16, his goals leading to a call-up to the Nigerian under-17 squad for the 1993 Under-17 World Cup that summer. Kanu would score five goals during the tournament to fire Nigeria to victory, eliminating Argentina along the way. His performances during the tournament would capture international attention and earn him a move to Europe during a time when very few Africans were making the transition to the top European leagues.
Kanu would sign for an Ajax side that at the time was amongst the best in the world. Competing for game time against the likes of Jari Litmanen and Marc Overmars, the Nigerian would find opportunities limited during his first season in Holland, but still finished with a league winner’s medal. It would be the first of three consecutive Eredivisie titles for Kanu at Ajax, with the Nigerian seeing much more game time in the 1994-95 season. He contributed 12 goals for Ajax as a side also featuring Patrick Kluivert, Frank Rijkaard and Clarence Seedorf went on to beat Milan in the 1995 Champions League final. Kanu would come on as a substitute for Seedorf during that match.
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The next season would be Kanu’s last for Ajax, earning a big money move to Inter Milan in 1996. That summer Kanu represented Nigeria at the 1996 Olympics for a strong side also featuring the talents of Taribo West and Jay-Jay Okocha. The Super Eagles went on to win gold, seeing off the talented and much-fancied Argentina side in the final. The star striker scored three goals in the competition, his crowning moment coming in the semi-final against Brazil, during which he netted twice to eliminate stars such as Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Roberto Carlos. His performances that year earned him the accolade of African Player of the Year.
After what was arguably the best two years of his career, Kanu faced the very real prospect of never playing football again. His medical at Inter revealed a serious heart defect and Kanu underwent surgery to replace an aortic valve. Recovery from the surgery would keep him out of football until 1997, but remarkably he did make a comeback and would go on to play for another 15 years.
After his return, Kanu would struggle to make an impact at Inter, making just 12 appearances over two seasons for the club. It was then that Kanu would be introduced to English football, joining Arsène Wenger’s Arsenal in 1999.
Kanu quickly made an impression in England, causing controversy during his debut in an FA Cup match against Sheffield United. The score was level with just 10 minutes to go when Ray Parlour threw the ball back towards United goalkeeper Alan Kelly following a break in play for the injured Lee Morris to receive treatment. Perhaps unaware of the tradition of returning the ball to the opposition if it is played out so that a player can receive treatment, Kanu chased down the ball and centred the ball for former Ajax team-mate Overmars, who duly scored. Due to this unsporting behaviour, Wenger offered to replay the match, with Arsenal again beating the Blades.
At Arsenal, Kanu would establish a reputation as something of a super-sub, regularly netting from the bench. Indeed, he still ranks amongst the all-time Premier League substitute appearance makers, with 118 games from the bench. Despite not winning much during his first three seasons in England – the 1999 Community Shield his sole trophy during this period – Kanu would earn cult status for the Gunners, a 15-minute hat-trick against Chelsea particularly notable.
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That particular match was during the 1999-2000 season. With Arsenal 2-0 down thanks to goals by Tore André Flo and Dan Petrescu, Kanu reduced the deficit, turning in an Overmars shot. A second from another Overmars assist was quickly followed by the winner in the final minutes of the game.
Kanu would gradually see less game time over the next three seasons for Arsenal, the emergence of Thierry Henry, in particular, limiting the Nigerian to appearances from the bench. Continuing to perform that super-sub role, Kanu would contribute important goals as Arsenal won two Premier League titles and two FA Cups between 2001 and 2004. Even so, his contract was not renewed at Highbury and Kanu moved on to Bryan Robson’s West Bromwich Albion.
Kanu had an underwhelming time at the Hawthorns, his goal during a win against former side Arsenal cancelled out by an outrageous miss against Middlesbrough. His unproductive two seasons with West Brom noted the beginning of Kanu’s decline. He would go on to join Harry Redknapp’s Portsmouth, becoming something of a cult hero at Fratton Park and earning the moniker ‘King Kanu’, while also picking up another FA Cup in 2008.
Nevertheless, Kanu would not reach the peaks of his earlier career again as Portsmouth suffered relegation from the Championship in 2010 amid enormous financial difficulties. These off-field issues would limit Kanu’s playing time during his final season in football, his weighty appearance bonuses along with concerns regarding his fitness seeing him left out more often than not. In the end, Kanu would walk away from Portsmouth owed wages of around £3million. It was an undistinguished end for such a successful career.
Despite that disappointing end, Kanu leaves behind a great legacy. His success, at a time when few Africans made the trip to England, paved the way for future players. Despite never winning the African Cup of Nations, he remains one of the most decorated Africans of all time – a fact that is made all the more remarkable by Kanu’s heart defect, one that inspired him to establish the Kanu Heart Foundation, which has gone on to perform hundreds of open heart surgeries.
Whether or not the rumours surrounding his age are true, and regardless of the underwhelming final years of his career, Nwankwo Kanu deserves to be remembered for the great player he was and just as a novelty figure.
By Adam Durack. Follow @AdamDurack