The celebrated exit of one of Nigeria’s finest ever footballers, Kanu Christian Nwosu Nwankwo (a.k.a Papilo), on the 11th of June, 2011 at the Teslim Balogun Stadium, Surulere, Lagos drew widespread opinions and mixed feelings. It was indeed a day Kanu “officially” called time on his glorious international career spanning over eighteen years.
Mixed feelings I say, because a lot of soccer enthusiasts and non-soccer enthusiasts inclusive felt unhappy that he was leaving at a time that there is no capable, or better still, suitable replacement for him, a time when his experience and exemplary leadership style on and off the pitch would have rubbed off on the emerging talents in the present Super Eagles that apparently still lacks a clear leader, one who their game can be built around. Moreover, a good number of Kanu’s contemporaries globally are still actively involved in the game for both club and country. These are the sad aspects of it all. On a happy note, he had a distinguished career – both on and off the pitch-placing Nigeria on the global soccer map and meritoriously got such huge fanfare and accolades on the day.
Kanu Nwankwo, born on August 1st 1976 in Owerri, Nigeria, cut his teeth as a rookie with the now defunct first division club, Federation Works F.C before switching over to Iwuanyanwu Nationale F.C of Owerri in Imo State (now known as Heartland F.C) in 1992, and caught the attention of the Golden Eaglets coach then, Fanny Amun through his awesome displays in the local league. He was drafted into the U-17 national team. Precisely in September 1993 in far away Japan, he alongside team captain Wilson Oruma, Karibe Ojigwe, Celestine Babayaro, Blessing Anyanwu, Mobi Oparaku etc razzled-dazzled the world, and, lifted the coveted U-17 World Cup trophy. He played a pivotal role leading up to the triumph.
The fall out of that historic feat was a transfer to Ajax Amsterdam of Holland – one of Europe’s elite clubs in that era – still in 1993. There, he was not lonely as he found good company in his senior, more experienced compatriot, Finidi George.
Playing together with football greats such as Edwin Van Der Sar, Patrick Kluivert, Edgar Davids, Clarence Seedorf, Danny Blind, Ronald Koeman, the De Boer brothers among others, Kanu’s Ajax triumphed over a star-studded, experienced AC Milan team featuring the likes of the legendary Paolo Maldini, Franco Baresi, George Opong Weah et al in the 1994/95 UEFA Champions League final match. Both young men were instrumental to that feat. Not long after, they lifted yet another prestigious trophy in the mould of the World Club Cup. Furthermore, Kanu won an unprecedented three consecutive Dutch League titles while at Ajax.
A year later, Kanu at the young age of 22,captained the Nigerian U-23 team labelled “The Dream Team” to Atlanta, Georgia in the USA; venue of the 1996 Olympic Games. Under the tutelage of Dutchman, Bonfrere Jo, He led the team consisting of established, seasoned stars like Uche Okechukwu, Taribo West, Sunday Oliseh, Austin “Jay Jay” Okocha, Emmanuel Amunike, Victor Ikpeba, Tijani Babangida, among others, to win gold at the football event; the first of its kind in Africa. On the way to achieving the success, they subjugated dreaded football playing nations like Brazil, Argentina and Mexico. I vividly remember the two breathtaking goals Kanu scored – and the attendant style of jubilation by himself – which ended Brazil’s dream in a match the arrogant Samba Boys felt victory was signed, sealed and delivered while the scoreline was 3-1 in their favour at half-time. Papilo’s performance did not go unnoticed as he was consequently named the African Footballer of the Year and the sixth best player in the world by CAF and FIFA respectively and snapped up by Intermilan F.C of Italy where he featured alongside South American legends: Ronaldo De Lima, Ivan Zamorano and a host of others. However, as glorious as Kanu’s football career was, a dark chapter which short lived the excitement was recorded – He was diagnosed of a heart defect which according to medical experts, would end his fast blossoming football career.
Perhaps it was the most difficult period of Kanu’s entire life. He left the game for a while in search of a way out of the situation. Infact, the football world watched with absolute apprehension and there was evident disquiet over the fate of the prodigiously talented lad. However, to the glory of God Almighty, he defied medical prognosis, bouncing back to the game powerfully after a heart surgery in Cleveland, USA. Sequel to him being certified fit enough to play football again, Kanu left Intermilan for Arsenal F.C of England.
Arsene Wenger breathed a new life into him and the rejuvenated Kanu exploded in the process, scoring magical goals! One moment that remains indelible in the minds of football followers was his hat-trick against Chelsea in a league match at Stamford Bridge. The Gunners were trailing by two goals, and then he turned on the style, mesmerizing world class defenders like Marcel Desailly and Frank Lebouef. Kanu’s heroics swung the match in Arsenal’s favour (3-2). Actually; Papilo’s best football was played while putting on the Arsenal shirt. He won two Premier League and FA Cup titles apiece and a UEFA Cup trophy.
On leaving Arsenal, Kanu moved to Westbromich Albion – Osaze Odemwengie’s present club – where he gave a good account of himself after which he proceeded to Portsmouth shortly before the commencement of the 2006/07 season. Suffice it to say that, in the twilight of his Arsenal career and up until his move to Portsmouth, he was being courted by clubs within and outside Europe but he turned all of them down preferring to remain in England for reasons best known to him.
The highpoint of his Portsmouth career so far was when he scored consecutively in the semi-final Your browser may not support display of this image. and final of the FA Cup against Westbromich Albion and Cardiff City respectively, landing them the glamorous trophy in the 2007/2008 season. Incidentally, both were 1-0 victories and it can therefore be asserted that Kanu single-handedly landed Portsmouth the FA Cup trophy perhaps; the third in his career.
It is on record that this legend appeared in three world Cups for Nigeria: France 1998, Korea-Japan 2002 and South Africa 2010.This is in addition to representing Nigeria in six African Nations Cups from Nigeria/Ghana 2000 to Angola 2010, surpassing the record set by the late Muda Lawal albeit he never registered a goal in any of them…laughable isn’t it? Just like in 1996, his excellent performance in the year 2000 edition earned him the African Footballer of the Year award once again.
Kanu had 13 goals in 86 caps for Nigeria. He remains Nigeria’s most decorated player and Africa’s second most decorated player in history just behind Cameroon legend, Samuel Eto’O Fils.
Beyond football, he is an ambassador of notable bodies like UNICEF, UN, NFF etc. He is also a philanthropist which is evident in his pet project -Kanu Heart Foundation – which he established not too long after surmounting his heart challenges. He was inspired to give back to the society in this way, after weathering the storm. Ever since then, he has sponsored a plethora of African heart patients, predominantly kids, to different parts of the world to have life-saving heart surgeries and the number is still counting as I write this discourse.
It is in light of his career achievements, contributions and magnanimity towards humanity that politicians, friends and well-wishers converged at the stadium to celebrate him. It is on also record that the amiable Governor of Lagos State, Barrister Babatunde Raji Fashola, did not just grace the occasion as a guest/host but he took an active part, captaining the “Super Eagles All Star team” against the “Kanu and Friends team” in the testimonial match. In addition, his colleagues, both past and active ones from Africa and beyond were not left out .Check out the list of presentees on the day: Samuel Eto’O Fils, Emmanuel Eboue, Emmanuel Adebayor, Ikechukwu Uche, Kalu Uche, Yakubu Aiyegbeni, Taiye Taiwo, Austin “Jay Jay” Okocha, Uche Okechukwu, Michael Essien, Daniel Amokachi, Obinna Nsofor, Peter Rufai, Ogbonna Kanu (his younger brother), Daniel Shittu, Ike Shorunmu, Stephen Keshi, Peterside Idah, Rigobert Song, Benjani Mwaruwari etc. The serving superstars had to defy the fact that they needed rest after a long season and recent national team engagements. For instance, Chelsea star, Michael Essien reportedly surfaced despite the fact that he had to attend the wedding of his close pal and teammate (Didier Drogba) in France the next day. Although he did not play the match.
In summary, it can thus be said that honour was indeed given to whom it was due. Kanu deserves all he is getting now and even more. He served the nation wholeheartedly as his commitment was never in doubt. In an era when other famous soccer stars around the world are getting so much attention in the headlines for the wrong reasons mostly due to their involvement in all sorts of immoral, scandalous acts, Kanu has stayed out of trouble. He can easily pass for a role model to the young kids globally.
However, it is sad that the NFF, from inception lack the concept of honouring our heroes who have served us so well including winning laurels by organising this kind of grand occasion whenever they decide to call time on their international careers. The President of the NFF was quoted to have said that the testimonial match for Kanu was eighty percent their own brainchild. Personally, I strongly object to such claim based on their antecedent, which is known to keen followers of the game in Nigeria.
Papilo, you are not just a legend on the pitch but a great personality on and off it. As you exit from the Super Eagles, as your club career seems supposedly moribund; we wish you the best in your chosen endeavours in life particularly your new position of the Special Adviser on Sports to the Imo State Governor, Chief Rochas Okorocha…Did I hear someone say its a case of putting a square peg in a round hole? Time will surely tell.