FEATURE ARTICLE

Raymond Tarek BellehThursday, December 7, 2006
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Baden-Wurttemberg, Germany

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NWANKWO KANU: THE UNBELIEVABLE RETURN OF THE GENEROUS GIANT


hen I visited London early this year, I happened to watch highlights of a Portsmouth game on the BBC. I knew Kanu had moved from to Portsmouth from West Bromwich Albion in a free transfer deal. Honestly, I wasn't expecting much from him as I felt his soccer flame was no longer burning brightly. In fact when I saw himself and Sol Campbell on the pitch, my heart went out to them. Two former Arsenal heavyweights had now been relegated to playing for lowly Portsmouth, I thought.


A few minutes into the game, I noticed a certain zeal about the Portsmouth side, but I put this down to the early season enthusiasm many weaker teams tended to display. Kanu was playing quite upfront and creating space for himself. Anyway, to cut the story short Kanu scored 2 goals in that game, one unbelievably with his head to my utter surprise. It was quite a good display by The Pompeys. Still I thought, great, what a lucky way to start the season, but things will change if they met tougher opposition.

On my return to Germany, I kept up with events in the premiership mostly through BBC World, Nigeriaworld and a few other Internet sources. To my surprise Kanu was still netting goals for Portsmouth and his head had come into play again. What a turn of events I said to myself. How does this guy do this? How does re-event himself time and time again? I must confess I'd become one of those who figured his career was on a downward spirral. It had been a long journey for the lanky fella, who for many years had thrilled football lovers the world over. Then things changed and it seemed his best was no longer quite good enough.

My first awareness of Kanu's existence was when he came on as a sub for Ajax, Amsterdam in the 1995 Champions League, in a game against Italian giants AC Milan, which they won 1 - 0. I had developed a liking for Ajax during that competition because of its cosmopolitan team of outstanding players, which had the likes of Edgar Davids, Patrick Klaivert, Yari Litmenen, and Nigerians like Finidi George, Sunday Oliseh, Tijani Babangida. Kanu's lanky figure alone made him stand out in the crowd, then add to that a unique, unorthodox style of play enriched with admirable skills and an ability to score goals. From that moment on I became an avid follower of him and most other Nigerian footballers plying their trade in European clubs.

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His rising appeal saw him move to Italy to join Serie A giants, Inter Milan for a healthy sum in millions. There he joined forces with another Super Eagles stalwart and today's friendly pastor, Taribo West, helping to make Inter Milan quite a formidable side. The Super Eagles were really beginning to spread their wings across Europe, and Kanu was a major figure in this soaring development. He took things up another notch in the 1996 Olympics, Atlanta, where he captained the Eagles to a breathtaking semi-final clash with the Boys from Brazil, famously scoring two late goals to overturn a 2-3 deficit into a 4-3 win in extra-time. The team went on to secure the gold medal by triumphing over old and slippery adversaries Argentina. All of these culminated in Kanu being named African Footballer of the Year for 1996. And well deserved too.

Kanu returned to Inter Milan on a wave of Olympian success, with great expectations and high hopes for the season. However, it seems Highs tend to be closely followed by Lows. For no sooner had the season begun that his meteoric rise was disrupted by problems with his fitness. A medical examination revealed that he in fact had a serious heart defect, a potential career-ending strain. This came as quite a surprise to many. How could such a thing befall a young aspiring footballer and gentleman like Kanu. He was completely devastated, and many were deeply worried for him. The cruel hand of faith I said. He flew to a specialist hospital in the United States to undergo open heart surgery, but with no guarantees of a full return to top-level athletic capability.

Then in early 1997, as if by some divine intervention, his cardiologist reported that he had made a full recovery and was in fact much better shape than before the operation. We ought to have recognised then that Kanu was sowing the seeds of his reputation as Africa's footballing Come Back Kid. The football world was simply astonished by this rare miraculous turnaround. Kanu simply attributed everything to his endless prayers and deep faith in God.

They say out of adversity comes opportunity. Kanu's terrible experience with his heart gave him another opportunity to further demonstrate his humanity, innate generosity and philanthropy. He founded the Kanu Heart Foundation, an organisation providing help to predominantly African children with heart problems by covering the costs for overseas treatments. This philanthropic gesture has helped saved my young lives throughout Africa. For rich Nigerians with endless propensity for ostentation and wild extravagance, here's a lesson on how money can be put to good use.

Back to football, Kanu was part of the Super Eagles team that went to the France 98 World Cup. Unfortunately a niggling knee injury kept him sidelined for the best part of the competition and he had very little influence on proceedings. The team however led their group into the second round at Spain's expense, although there overall performance paled in comparison to their previous exploits in USA 94, when they took the world by storm and came to within a hare's breath of qualifying for the quarter-finals.

After the World Cup, things were not shinning as brightly for Kanu at club level. He was spending a better part of the season on the bench at Inter, getting only fleeting opportunities to display the brilliant skills that had enhanced his reputation and made him an international football star. My feeling at the time was, Italian clubs just loved getting hold of exciting foreign talent only to frustrate their careers by depriving them of games. Kanu wasn't the only recipient of this rather bizarre football management style, Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp immediately come to mind, but there were others.

However in 1999 things were to look up once again. It seemed some heavenly divinity had come to Kanu's rescue yet again, for he was brought to Arsenal London by none other than Arsene Wenger, a manager with a reputation and keen eye for spotting unique talents other short-sighted managers had cast aside. Kanu becoming a Gunner was of particular resonance with me as I am an Arsenal fan. I was just simply thrilled that Kanu was now part of Arsenal's make-up. The extra benefit for him was, London provided a far more cosmopolitan environment than Milan, and his level of relaxation could only enhance his football to Arsenal's benefit. Although it began with a rather shaky debut against Sheffield United in the FA Cup, where he didn't realize that a throw back to the United goalkeeper by his Arsenal teammate, Ray Parlour, was a good sporting gesture. Kanu pounced on the ball unchallenged and crossed it in for the Dutch Road Runner, Mark Overmars to score, giving Arsenal a 2-1 win. Cleverly Arsene Wenger, to make amends offered to replay the match, which turned out to be exactly the same scoreline.

In spite of the shaky start, kanu quickly settled into the team and ofcourse London life, with its significant black population and high number of Nigerians. He must have wondered what on earth prompted him to move to Italy in the first place. Perhaps, age, inexperience and the excitement of earning big money. Anyhow, it didn't take long before he began to demonstrate why he was an Olympic gold medalist and a former Ajax ace. Each week he gave spectators brilliant displays of his numerous 'party tricks', as one English commentator often dubbed his dribbling. The Gunners were at this point quite a thorn in the sides of many teams. They now had flair to go with their speedy direct kind of play. Kanu also scored a number of exceptionally brilliant goals, which are bound to go down in English Premiership history as amongst the best ever seen. One of such goals was in a game against Chelsea where he scored a hat-trick, including an exceptionally fantastic goal where rounded the goalkeeper and nipped the ball in from the left-side of the goal line. There were many other great goals during his time at Arsenal and he was loved and adored by the fans, generating the headline pun " Kanu believe it ". All this earned him African Player of the Year in 1999 for the second time.

But just as I pointed out earlier about Highs and Lows, there was a Low in the waiting. For one reason or the other Kanu's performance began to dip as Thierry Henry's continued to rise. The latter began to score more goals and ultimately became first choice striker, a position he's held up to this very day. Kanu was often accused of being a little slow and holding on to the ball for too long, but he usually made up for this with his brilliant skills and a few goals here and there. On the other hand, Thierry Henry's speed and goal scoring proficiency was raising his profile through the roof. All of this began to overshadow almost every other Arsenal player, particularly forwards like Kanu, whose goal scoring ability seemed on a gradual decline. Performances for Nigeria were equally affected by this sudden inability to score goals. All the same he won the Double (the Premiership and FA Cup) with Arsenal in 2002, to the irritation of their arch rivals Manchester United.

After this wonderful feat in 2002, Kanu's appearances for Arsenal became notably fewer and fewer and his self-confidence seemed to evaporate with each absence. When he did get a chance to play he lost the ball a little more frequently and earned a reputation for going to ground too easily. As an Arsenal fan, I was equally infuriated with him but the Nigerian in me kept saying 'give him more games and he'll be fine'. Instead things just got worse for the generous giant and all his confidence seemed to fly straight out the window. This was probably one of the most frustrating period of his footballing career. Many people, myself included, began to conclude that perhaps it had to do with age. The mind can see the tricks, the legs just can't put them together. It happens to many players. No one would argue that Kanu's football career seemed on a definite downward slope.

The Super Eagles failure to qualify for Germany 2006 made matters worse. Nigerians were extremely disappointed and were unrepentant in their fury and blamed everyone from the NFA officials, coach to the players themselves. So Kanu really joined Portsmouth on the back of Nigeria's absence from the 2006 World Cup, failure to secure the consolation prize, the Africa Nations Cup, and a not so impressive run at West Bromich Albion. No one could have expected his move to Portsmouth to yield a different exotic fruit. No one except of course Kanu and his faith.

One thing I must point out is that, through all the difficult moments Kanu remained committed to the Nigerian team and honoured almost every call to duty. Even when his performance was in question and he was being heavily criticised, he just wanted to play and give his best. If all our sports men and women, and politicians would emulate this kind of dedication, we sure would go places as a nation. Just like Kanu is.

Today, he is one of the top two scorers in the English premiership and his team, Portsmouth lie in 4th place in one of the most respected football leagues in the world. It was unthinkable just six months ago. Just as unthinkable as Kanu scoring goals with his head. No doubt Harry Redknapp's good man-management skills has contributed to Kanu's fantastic run.

As it stands, Kanu is the most highly-decorated African footballer, with quite a few awards to his name. A truly remarkable achievement for someone whose career could have ended a decade ago by an acute heart defect. Faith does really move mountains. At least in Kanu's case it seems so, time and time again. I doff my hat to the Generous Giant and great Nigerian role model.