THE OLYMPIC GOLD GLITTER: Kanu and co strike gold in Atlanta
Nwankwo Kanu is a name almost synonymous to elegant football in Nigeria. The man Kanu clocked 40 on Monday and he reminds us of his feat as the most decorated footballer in the country’s history.
Kanu was still a teenager when he became a celebrity after driving his nation to win the FIFA Under-17 World Cup with the Golden Eaglets; within months, he was living the dream, joining AFC Ajax in 1993 for €207,047.
He made his debut one year later and scored 25 goals in 54 appearances, winning the UEFA Champions League after coming on as a substitute in the final against AC Milan.
Nwankwo Kanu moved to the Serie A with Inter Milan for the sum of $4.7 million before the drama that was to change his life completely.
First, he achieved what catapulted him into the world football folklore, leading the Nigeria Olympic soccer team to the first ever gold medal in African football history and scoring the crucial goals, especially the two magical goals that shocked mighty Brazil out of the championship in the semi finals.
The anguish in the face of José Roberto Gama de Oliveira, better known as Bebeto, after Kanu’s goals would go on to become one of the most enduring images of the Olympics.
History was made as Nigeria, through the leadership of Kanu, defeated Argentina in the Final. The moment most captured on film after the final whistle was Kanu holding the match ball and his team mates rushing to carry him shoulder high.
Kanu then joined the greatest icons of African football by being named the African Footballer of the year.
Destiny was however awaiting him on his return to Inter Milan after the Olympics. He did a routine medical test which was supposed to be a normal occurrence and then the completely unexpected happened.
OVERCOMING HEART SURGERY
The test revealed a serious heart defect and his career was completely threatened as the news broke across the international media and it was thought that his career had ended after the aortic valve was replaced.
Kanu, a devout christian, stated during those trying times that God would deliver him and it happened just as he said.
He returned to football and his challenges actually set him thinking of saving many other people who could be inthe same shoes. That was the birth of the Kanu Heart Foundation.
In an interview, Kanu once said his ordeal opened his eyes and heart to what millions of young children are going through without support. Today, the Heart Foundation is one of the biggest legacies of “Papilo”.
ADDING TO ARSENAL’S ARSENAL
Kanu survived that huge challenge and continued with his career anew. It was to Arsenal FC of England he moved and he truly showed his amazing talent in spite of the world-class players jostling for positions in the team.
After adding to Arsenal’s armoury, he won multiple laurels and scored lots of goals that defied logic, especially his comeback hat-trick in that famous game against Chelsea. That game defined who Kanu was and he won loads of laurels for the Gunners.
Kanu again won the African Footballer of the Year award in 1999. Kanu left Arsenal and moved to West Bromwich Albion and later Portsmouth before calling it a day for club football in July 2012.
Due to his heart condition, he made the third-most substitute appearances in Premier League history, appearing from the bench 118 times.
At national team level, Kanu lost in the final of the African Cup of Nations on home soil in Nigeria in 2000 and played twice at the FIFA World Cup in 2002 and in 2010 when he captained the Eagles.
Overall, he scored 13 goals in 86 games before bowing out. He however continued to be part of the team as an ambassador and was on the pitch celebrating the AFCON win in 2013 with the Super Eagles.
After his retirement from active football, he is even now so busy with his Kanu Heart Foundation that is saving countless lives across the world.
Kanu has a Photo Studio, and remains a UNICEF goodwill ambassador, with many other projects ongoing.
As a legend and a patriot, Kanu still follows the national teams to games to inspire the youths and owns the Kanu Nwankwo football club playing in the lower leagues.
MEDALS ON KANU’S SHOULDERS
AJAX FC: Nwankwo Kanu won the Eredivisie, the League Cup three times and won the UEFA Champions League Once. He also wo the UEFA Super Cup in 1995 and won the Intercontinental Club Cup in 1995.
INTER-MILAN: Kanu won the UEFA CUP with Inter Milan in 1998.
ARSENAL: Nwankwo Kanu won the English League with Arsenal in 2001-02, 2003-04 and won the English FA Cup in 2002-2003 as well as the Community Shield in 1999.
African Footballer of the Year Award: 1996,1991
BBC Footballer of the Year Award: 1997,1999