Nwankwo Kanu, Nigeria’s most decorated footballer, bid farewell to active play in a testimonial game at the Teslim Balogun Stadium, Lagos on June 11. The two time African footballer of the year was surrounded by friends and former team-mates in an interesting game that was watched by 14 000 fans.
Illustrious names such as Samuel Eto'o, Emmanuel Adebayor, Ike Uche, Kolo Toure, Kalu Uche, John Utaka, Yakubu Aiyegbeni, Elderson Echiejile, Emmanuel Eboue, Sulley Muntari and Hermann Hreidarrson played in that game, to honour one of football's shining examples.
Also ex-players Rigobert Song, Anthony Baffoe, Austin Okocha, Sammy Osei Kuffuor, Khalilou Fadiga, Ike Shorunmu, Alloy Agu, Peter Rufai, Finidi George, Mutiu Adepoju, Daniel Amokachi, Idah Peterside and Uche Okechukwu played in the match.
Watching from the bench were the coaches Austin Eguavoen, Samson Siasia, Stephen Keshi and Johannes Bonfrere. Chelsea midfielder Michael Essien was also looking on from the sidelines in a truly star studded party that came to pay homage to one of the brightest lights of African football.
The game ended 3-1 in favour of the Super Eagles against the Friends of Kanu. The legend himself played for both sides and opened the scoring for the Eagles, on the last occasion when he will be part of that group.
Every individual remembers the first moment they saw a phenomenal star, work of art or film. It is when looking back at moments like these that we try to recall if one ever saw greatness at that first sighting.
When Nwankwo Kanu helped Nigeria to a champion’s trophy at the Fifa U17 World Cup in Japan 1993, not many could have said it was the beginning of a journey into legend. After all, how many from that class of ’93 made legendary status out of their career aside from Kanu?
Tall and lanky with a lazy gait that often times deceived defenders to his physical strength, Kanu mesmerised the world for two decades, playing at the very top of world football and winning some of the most coveted trophies in the game.
After the 2-1 victory over Ghana in that final in Japan, Kanu moved to Ajax in the Netherlands where he teamed up with a very successful young team in winning the Uefa Champions League in 1995. He scored crucial goals along the way and began to fulfil the promise that he had shown only two years earlier.
In the summer of 1996, Kanu scored one of the most memorable goals ever against a Brazil side to clinch a 4-3 victory for Nigeria in the semi-finals of the Atlanta Olympic Games. Receiving a ball from a throw in, Kanu tapped the ball up and swung round to flip it over Dida into the Brazilian goal for a key equaliser.
Minutes later, the captain whipped in a golden goal past Dida from the edge of the box to secure victory for the Dream Team and send them into the final where they defeated Argentina 3-2 to win Africa’s first Olympic football gold medal.
In the aftermath of that Olympic victory, Kanu moved to Inter where he was discovered to have a heart defect during medicals. It was a situation that shocked the entire nation and continent. Suddenly, the golden boy looked like he was going to have his life and career cut short. His country showed him love and messages of hope were sent his way.
Kanu endured a vast number of predictions from soothsayers and seers, but he persevered. He eventually underwent surgery in Cleveland, USA and returned to playing. Many who had said he would not remain the same after his surgery were proven wrong when Kanu won the Uefa Cup with Inter, albeit in a more subdued role as his former Olympic foe Ronaldo was now the point man for the Nerazzurri.
In 1999, Kanu moved to the English Premier League (EPL) where he became Arsenal’s first African signing. In those days only a few people in Nigeria watched English football. It was regarded as static and boring. But the lanky Nigerian killed that notion with his performances and soon began to recruit a huge following for the Londoners that still stands to this day.
A hat-trick against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge to give the Gunners a 3-2 win over their bitter rivals cemented Kanu into Arsenal history. The ease and talent with which he waltzed past the Blues defence was made even more obvious when Arsene Wenger exclaimed that the lad had skills that could not be coached.
After five seasons in North London and having won two league and FA Cup titles, Kanu moved to the smaller West Bromwich Albion club, where he made little impact as the club was relegated. However, a move to Portsmouth seemed to rejuvenate his tiring legs and he helped the Seasiders to an FA Cup title in 2008, his third. His goal in the final against Cardiff City effectively sealed his legend in English football.
On the international scene, Kanu played at three Fifa World Cups and five African Nations Cups. Despite his scoring prowess, he did not find the back of the net in all those tournaments and was unable to achieve any major competition victory with the team that was bedevilled by administrative problems and various other issues most of the time.
To his credit though, he maintained a humble gait and was always available to play when his country needed his services.
The Lion Heart
After his heart surgery, Kanu moved to set up a heart foundation named after him and has been involved in helping many Africans to get access to medical care. Over 400 children have been helped by the organisation with regards to heart surgeries at a 98.5% success rate. He has made plans to set up a $32million heart hospital in Nigeria to bring heart care closer to home and ensure it is better afforded within the country, rather than travelling overseas.
He is also a UNICEF ambassador as well as a businessman with a hotel and bottled water company, among many other interests.
What football peers said about Kanu
|“I cannot hide the fact that I moulded my career in his image and it is obvious that he is still my inspiration and hero as a footballer.”
- Emmanuel Adebayor
Sammy Osei Kuffuor (ex-Bayern and former Ghana)
“I played against Kanu several times and. He was a very skilful player despite his height. It’s an honour to have known such a great talent.”
Anthony Baffoe (former Leverkussen and ex-Ghana)
“He’s one of the most intelligent players on the pitch and very skilful. He had a great sense of timing and superb last pass. World football is losing another living legend.”
|“After playing against him [at Afcon 2006], I was honoured and today I came here to show how much we respect and appreciate his achievement, inspiration, motivation and charitable gesture. Kanu is undoubtedly the most recognised successful and talented footballer I have ever seen on the field.”
- Samuel Eto'o
Rigobert Song (ex-Liverpool and former Cameroon captain)
“Look at the kids, he has helped them a lot by reviving their lives and giving their parents hope through his foundation. This is a wonderful gesture of a true African ambassador coming from Nigeria.”
Stephen Keshi (ex-Nigeria captain and former Togo and Mali coach)
“It is very bitter to swallow, that those excellent skills, deft touches, sleek moves and body swerves, the sublime and wonderful touches on the ball that are the hallmark of this hero of our time will be missing on the international stage.”
|HONOURS | Kanu won a great deal during his career
||Three Dutch league titles, Uefa Champions League, Uefa Super Cup, Intercontinental Cup|
||Uefa Cup (now Europa League)|
||Two Premier League titles, two FA Cups, Community Shield|
||Fifa U17 World Cup title, Olympic gold medal|
||Caf African player of the year 1996 & 1999|