African Football legend profile: Nwankwo Kanu

African Football legend profile: Nwankwo Kanu
Nwankwo Kanu of Nigeria during the 2004 Africa Cup of Nations

by Graeme Jackson

Friday Mar 27, 2020. 09:00

With top-level football ground to a halt thanks to the coronavirus epidemic, we look back at a legend of yesteryear. This week’s spotlight falls on Nigeria’s Nwankwo Kanu.

What his origin story?

Born in Owerri in Imo State, Nigeria on 1 August 1976, Nwankwo Kanu learned his trade at Federation Works and Iwuanyanwu Nationale. He made a name for himself as the captain of the Nigerian team which won the 1993 U-17 World Cup in Japan, bringing him to the attention of Dutch giants Ajax.

Club career

Kanu moved to the Amsterdam club in 1993 and enjoyed immediate trophy success, with Ajax winning three Eredivisie titles and the UEFA Champions League in 1995 – the Nigerian appeared as a substitute in the final against AC Milan (he replaced fellow great Clarence Seedorf).

In 1996 Italian giants Internazionale snapped up the Nigerian talent from Ajax but there were troubled waters ahead: a medical check uncovered a heart defect which required corrective surgery and ensured that Kanu saw little playing time in two and a half years with the Nerazzurri.

February 1999 saw a major turning point in Kanu’s club career: he signed for Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal and would spend four and a half seasons at the London club, racking up 43 goals in 195 appearances. He won two Premier League titles, two FA Cups, was part of the ‘Invincibles’ season of 2003/04, and most famously scored an incredible hat-trick in a match against London rivals Chelsea which turned a 0-2 deficit into a 3-2 win – it’s a moment Gunners fans will forever cherish.

Kanu wound down his club career with spells at West Bromwich Albion and Portsmouth spanning the years 2004 to 2012. He experience relegation at both clubs, but also wrote his name into Pompey legend by scoring the winning goals in both the semifinal and final of the 2008 FA Cup.

International career

As mentioned above, Kanu won the 1993 U-17 World Cup but that was just the start of his epic journey with various Nigerian national teams. He was a hero of the 1996 Olympic Games when Nigeria defeated Brazil and Argentina en route to Gold medals, made 87 appearances for the Super Eagles between 1994 and 2011 (during which time he played at three World Cups and six Africa Cup of Nations tournaments) and also won the African Footballer of the Year gong two times: 1996 and 1999.

Kanu’s achievements at both club and international level fully warrant his status as a legend of African Football, but he remains one of the most beloved figures of the beautiful game in the continent because of his incredible style of play (he was a supremely skilful dribbler and visionary passer of the ball) as well as his positivity and charisma.

Famous quote

“When good things are coming, there are always some people who haven’t been doing good who will try and stop it. But if you believe in what you are doing and are strong enough, then you achieve it. People know who I am and what I have done.”

What’s he doing now?

The 43-year-old’s primary role is as the founder and ambassador of the Kanu Heart Foundation, a non-governmental, non-profit organisation which helps children with cardiac disease obtain life-saving surgeries. What else would you expect from one of the good guys of the game? He also does work for UNICEF and in various media outlets.

Anything else to add?

The meaning of his first given ‘Nwankwo’ is baby boy born on Nkwo market day (a particular market day in Igbo).

Check out these compilations of his best skills and goals for Arsenal and Nigeria:

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