Although he is officially retired from the football pitch, the name, Kanu Nwankwo evokes a sense of patriotism and national pride as it immediately calls to mind the glory days of the Super Eagles; when they soared non-stop!!! Even a football neophyte knows that Kanu Nwankwo is one of Africa’s greatest footballers.
“Papilooooooo,” as he is fondly called is one of the most decorated African Players, with a CAF African Footballer of the Year Award, twice conquered; Kanu has also won a UEFA Champions League medal, a UEFA Cup medal, and three FA Cup Winners Medals. He is also one of few players to have won the Premier League, FA Cup, Champions League, UEFA Cup and an Olympic Gold Medal. In addition, Kanu holds the record for the most substitute appearances in Premier League history, appearing from the bench a total of 118 times. According to popular opinion, the number of trophies won by Kanu for his country and clubs during his active years is a record desired by most Nigerian football players.
Born into a less than affluent home, the 37-year-old baller from Eastern Nigeria started his illustrious football career at the age of 15 with the Nigerian League Club, Federation Works. His big break came when he delivered a sterling performance at the U-17 World Championships during his term with Iwuanyanwu Nationale. He was courted and signed by Dutch Eredivisie AFC Ajax in 1993, and he has dazzled on and off the pitch in the decades following his introduction to international football.
For 16 years, Kanu played for the Nigerian National team, the ‘Super Eagles’ and endeared himself to the hearts of the football loving nation with his trademark moves and goal-scoring abilities. Could Nigerians love him any better when he joined the team of football greats including Celestine Babayaro, Taribo West, Emmanuel Amunike, Jay-Jay Okocha, Victor Ikpeba [The Prince of Monaco], to win an Olympic gold medal in Atlanta 1996?
It is not in doubt that the enticement for most Arsenal fans in Nigeria stems from the days when Kanu played at Highbury Stadium, scoring 44 goals in 197 games. In the summer of 2006, Kanu played as a guest for Arsenal in Dennis Bergkamp’s testimonial game, the first match to be played in Arsenal’s new Emirates Stadium. The game was tied 1–1 when Kanu scored the winning goal, making him the third person to score in the stadium. He remains a popular figure at Arsenal, applauded whenever he appears at the Emirates Stadium. In 2008, Kanu was voted 13th in the “Gunners’ Greatest 50 Players” poll.
Kanu moved on to West Bromwich Albion and finally, Portsmouth as a free agent from 2006. His official retirement from international football was celebrated with a testimonial match which took place in Lagos, Nigeria in July, 2011. According to the BBC, over 14000 fans braved rainy weather to watch their hero Kanu play alongside many of Africa’s greatest football stars including Jay Jay Okocha, Samuel Eto’o and Emmanuel Adebayor. Other stars on the pitch included Danny Shittu, Sulley Muntari, Rigobert Song, Emmanuel Eboue, Kalu Uche, Jean Makoun, Khalilou Fadiga, Anthony Baffoe, Sammy Kuffour, George Boateng, Joseph Yobo, Taye Taiwo, Herman Hreidarsson, Obinna Nsofor, Ikechukwu Uche and Yakubu Ayegbeni.
Though retired from the pitch, Kanu continues to soar in diverse industries. He owns a chain of businesses with sundry interest in oil, property, hospitality and photography.
The dashing dude with the ever-present cornrows is also a UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund) Ambassador, and has been awarded with a prestigious National Honour.
Kanu’s story will be grossly incomplete if his near-fatal heart ailment is not included. He underwent a successful heart surgery in 1997, and has since dedicated his resources to assisting health-challenged, less-privileged Africans through his Kanu Heart Foundation– this non-profit organization has raised millions of Naira for children with heart related ailments. Many have been treated both home and abroad and are living a healthier, better life. What a wonder, what a joy!
A source of national pride indeed, is our Papilo!