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This week, Nwankwo Kanu turns 40. Haters will say this happened about 15 years ago, but we’ll ignore them and celebrate by listing the great man’s greatest career highlights.
Kanu is not just a Nigerian legend, but also a true African legend, an Icon. A two-time African Footballer of the year, and with a list of honours as long as my arm, Kanu is one of those footballers with a true inspirational story, and that he was able to do it for so long, at a decent level just proves that what a great player he was.
You know that you’re great when a Brazilian footballer takes his nickname from you.
A great player and a good man, who has done a lot for children with cardiac issues, after having to undergo heart surgery himself at the age of 20, we hope he had a wonderful birthday and wish him many more.
Here are 5 of his greatest moments.
In 1996, Kanu was top of the world. He had just captained Nigeria to Gold in the Football event of the Atlanta Olympics, the first African team to win a Football Gold and was about to sign for Internazionale, one of Italy’s greatest teams; then everything came crashing down.
The Italian club found out that Kanu had a serious heart defect during his medical and he had surgery to replace the aortic valve in his chest. He would end up missing all of that season, and when he came back, he struggled for fitness and suffered other minor injuries. It was a frustrating time for him.
He only scored one goal for Inter in about a dozen appearances, but this goal meant so much, because it showed that maybe the dragon that stalked his career might after all be slayed. It might not be the biggest goal of his career, but it’s the most emotional.
1999 was a different time. The Internet was not as ubiquitous as it is now so finding out about players was not always easy. Long time Arsenal fans, already a bit suspicious about all the foreigners coming into the game, would probably have been a bit sceptical about signing a player who had a heart problem, and who’d only played 12 games in 18 months. Slowly but surely though, Kanu began to play himself back into form, helping Arsenal in their title epic, but ultimately unsuccessful title chase with Manchester United. This cheeky backheel against Middlesbrough, the 5th in a 6-1 hammering crowned Kanu (at least for the English) as a player with extravagant skill.
3. Cup Final Goal.
The gloss around Kanu, now in his 30s when he scored this goal, had worn off a bit after a middling spell at West Brom. He signed for Portsmouth in the summer of 2006 and started with a bang, going on a scoring spree even his hardiest fans couldn’t have foreseen.
His signing heralded a new outlook for Portsmouth, who had just managed to stay up the previous season. However, with players like Kanu, and Sol Campbell in the team, and under Harry Redknapp’s management, Portsmouth suddenly seemed to be going places. The upward trajectory reached it’s height when Portsmouth reached the 2008 FA Cup final. Kanu had already scored the goal to take them there, and he came correct again at Wembley stadium, scoring the only goal of the Final.
Kanu was in fine form in 1999, and started the 1999/2000 season on fire, scoring key goals for Arsenal. On October 23, 1999, Arsenal travelled to Stamford Bridge, Chelsea’s stadium. Chelsea were impregnable at the Bridge and had not conceded a goal at home before this match. In their previous home game, they had obliterated European Champions Manchester United 5-0.
When they took a 2-goal lead, it looked like it was game-over for Arsenal. However, with 17 minutes to go, Kanu scored a brilliant Hat-trick to turn the match for Arsenal. His final goal scored in the last minute of the game could actually make this list on it’s own if not for the whole story of the game.
Kanu captained the Dream Team to the Olympics in 1996. The team had played Brazil in a group match and lost, so when the Brazilians went 3-1 up in the semi-finals of the Olympic Football tournament, it looked like it was curtains for Nigeria. The Nigerians pulled one back, and it looked like it would just be a consolation goal, before Kanu in the last minute turned and squeezed home an equaliser.
Then a few minutes into Golden Goal (sudden death) Extra Time, a long pass bounced off the back of a Nigerian player’s back into Kanu’s rangy stride. With exquisite composure and an elegant shuffle, he turned the two defenders and slotted the ball past Dida, in the Brazilian goal. Nigeria had beaten Brazil 4-3 in an epic game.
Kanu didn’t score in the Gold-Medal game versus Argentina, but I always thought it was perfect that the ball came to him as the referee blew his whistle to signify the first triumph of an African nation in the Olympic Football. He more than anyone had done so much for us to win it.