King Kanu: From Arsenal's talisman to globetrotting philanthropist

Nwankwo Kanu was about 30 yards from goal when he raced onto a misplaced pass against Deportivo La Coruna in the Champions League in 2000.

The Arsenal legend got his head to the ball just in front of the defender and went charging into the box as the famous North Bank at Highbury rose in anticipation.

What happened next is why Kanu is still loved by everyone at Arsenal to this day.

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He waited as Deportivo keeper Jacques Songo'o came off his line to meet him and then - without touching the ball - he did what only Kanu could do.

He jinked, he dropped those big shoulders and left Songo’o prone on the turf as the ball just rolled past him. 

Only then did the mercurial forward touch the ball, gently caressing it over the line with the easiest of left foot finishes.

It was a goal so outrageous, all you could do was laugh.

Arsene Wenger did on the touchline, as did commentator Andy Gray - who was watching up on the TV gantry.

“What a goal,” he said. “Fantastic.”

It was a moment of genius that summed Kanu up. 

From the moment he arrived at Arsenal from Inter Milan in 1999, he was pure entertainment.

So it’s little wonder that Arsene Wenger credits him as his greatest ever January signing.

“He was a huge player,” Wenger said. “It was amazing some of the things he could do.”

Kanu Arsenal

Wenger actually labelled Kanu as a gamble when he first brought him in, but that was nothing to do with his talent.

It was down to the fact that the Nigerian had only just battled back from a heart problem that had threatened to end his career before it had really begun.

Fresh from winning the Champions League with Ajax, Kanu had just captained Nigeria to the gold medal at the 1996 Olympics before making a big money move to Inter Milan.

He had the world at his feet, but it suddenly came crashing down around him just as he was preparing to start his career in Serie A.

Tests carried out on the Nigerian found that he had a problem with his heart. 

It looked for a time like his career could be over, but after an operation in the United States, he made his return in April 1997 and less than two years later - after just 12 games for Inter - Wenger pounced.

“He did everything for six months to try to get me to Arsenal,” Kanu said. “That's the kind of person you want to be and want to support.

“At the time nobody believed in me, they were asking ‘you’re coming out from hospital, can you play football?’ He believed in me. 

“When I came I didn’t disappoint him.”

Kanu would go on to write himself into the history books at Arsenal, where he will forever now be lovingly known as ‘King Kanu’.

Wenger may have called the signing a gamble, but it was one that paid off in the best way possible, although things didn’t exactly get off to the best start.

Kanu’s debut came against Sheffield United in the FA Cup and, just 10 minutes after coming on, he was involved in an incident that would lead to the result being expunged from history.

After Sheffield United had put the ball out of play so Lee Morris could get treatment for an injury, Ray Parlour looked to give them possession back by launching his throw-in towards goalkeeper Alan Kelly.

But Kanu, who didn’t understand what was going on, raced over to the ball, took it in his stride and crossed for Marc Overmars to score what proved to be the winning goal.

“It was pandemonium,” former Arsenal defender Nigel Winterburn recalled. “I don’t think any of us really knew what to do.”

Sheffield United were understandably enraged and captain David Holdsworth made a beeline for Kanu.

“I was furious,” Holdsworth said. “He didn’t really get a chance to explain himself to be honest because we were a bit aggressive towards him. 

“But he has apologised since, we’ve shook hands and he’s a good guy.”

The game was eventually replayed and Kanu would soon put the incident behind him, going on to win two Premier League titles with Arsenal before he left in 2004, as well as two FA Cups.

He produced his own highlight reel during his four-and-a-half year stay in north London, with goals ranging from the sublime to the utterly ridiculous.

That outrageous effort against Deportivo was far from a one off.

Kanu Arsenal stats

There was of course that last minute goal against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, when he bent a shot into the far top corner from the tightest of angles to complete a 15-minute hat-trick, as well as the flicked backheel volley against Middlesbrough.

And who could forget the goal against Tottenham at White Hart Lane soon after he signed when Kanu received the ball on the edge of the box with his back to goal, flicked it over his and Luke Young’s head, before crashing a half volley into the net.

“I think that was when I really introduced myself to our fans,” Kanu said.

Kanu’s time at Arsenal came to an end in 2004 after playing his part in the Invincibles’ historic campaign. He left for West Brom before joining Portsmouth in 2006, where he would go on to score the winning goal in the 2008 FA Cup final.

He enjoyed six years at Fratton Park before calling time on his legendary career and he’s spent his time since doing all he can to save lives back in his native Nigeria, heading up the Kanu Heart Foundation (KHF) which he established in 2000.

Since its launch, the KHF has saved the lives of more than 550 Nigerian children by giving them access to open heart surgeries - but Kanu knows that number could be higher.

That’s why he spends most of his time travelling the globe trying to spread the word even further so he can realise his dream of opening a specialist hospital in the centre of Nigeria’s capital, Abuja.

Kanu’s philanthropic work is just another reason why he is so adored around the world. 

A gentle giant of a man who thrilled and entertained and is now focused on doing all he can to use his position to help others.

Long live King Kanu!