Kanu being presented with 1999 African Footballer of the Year Award by CAF and FIFA Presidents, Issa Hayatou and Sep Blatter

By Oyediji Oluwaseun Babatunde
Sports Writer, kick442.com Nigeria

He is one of the most decorated Super Eagles players alongside John Mikel Obi who also won the African Footballer of the Year twice in spite of his career-threatening heart defect.
Papilo Kanu Nwankwo is on the number two spot of Green/Super Eagles Greatest of all Time (GOAT) Countdown as compiled by Soccernittygritty.

2. Nwankwo Kanu

Unarguably Nigeria’s ‘most successful’ player in history. Nwankwo Kanu knew from the get-go football would be a most rewarding venture. Aged 16, he finally made that break in 1992 when he took the local league by storm, an immensely productive season in which he finished as one of the top scorers with 15 goals in only 25 games. It was a stupendous feat worthy of the attention of national team handlers. The teenager had done enough to prick the ears of Super Eagles manager, Clemens Westerhof. The Dutch tactician examined Kanu closely in camp and was convinced by what he saw but knew the teenager would need a less competitive stage to complete his development, hence, he tossed him to Under 17 coach Fanny Amun and the rest, as they say, is history.

Following a successful cadet tournament in Japan, Ajax, known for nurturing rookies to veterans hardly hesitated to snap him up for a fee reported to be just above €200,000. It proved a shrewd investment as the young unfazed Kanu slowly worked his way up to reckoning amid fierce competition posed by a star-studded bunch which oozed quality in every department. Nonetheless, the Nigerian would emerge from the dugout regularly to impact games throughout an extremely successful three-year spell including one year of apprenticeship. Once he accessed the main team, Kanu netted every other game- 25 goals in 54. He, alongside Babayaro, was the youngest Nigerians to experience UEFA Champions League (UCL) football, however, Kanu took it to the next level by not only experiencing it but also, conquered it with Ajax in the 1994/95 season at the expense of the dreaded AC Milan with Kanu making a 54th-minute appearance replacing Clarence Seedorf. His spell at Ajax was a trophy-laden one: three Eredivisie titles, one UCL, one UEFA super cup, and one Intercontinental Cup.

Kanu Nwankwo during Ajax Testimonial Match

With the UCL title in the bag, Kanu’s reputation back home quickly soared and he captained Nigeria to her first-ever Olympic gold medal. He wasn’t just a nominal squad member, but an integral one. His breathtaking brace against Brazil in the semis following his goal in the opening game vs Hungary further enhanced his stature in the game.

Kanu was quickly snapped up by
Inter Milan for $4.7m after the Nigerian had attained iconic status following his inspiring performances for Nigeria at the summer Olympics, the feat earned him the African Player of the Year [APOTY] award. Unfortunately, medical examinations conducted on him revealed a serious heart defect to the surprise of club Chairman, Massimo Moratti who threatened legal action against ‘careless’ Ajax as result emphatically showed the defect had occurred for years undiagnosed by the Dutch side. Long story short, Kanu miraculously transcended premature retirement against all odds and returned to club duties with the Serie A club by the summer of 1997. After his return, he would struggle to make an impact at Inter, understandably so, making just 20 appearances over two seasons with one goal. He wouldn’t bag down and succumb to obstacles, hence, he sought a move away.

Kanu was unrelenting in his pursuit of success in the game and must have thought he was the only one who believed in his own abilities.

Kanu lifting the English Premier League trophy with Arsenal FC

He was however proven wrong as Arsenal manager, Wenger, shared similar conviction worthy of a fee just above £4m amid intense censure by cynical pundits who questioned the wisdom behind the acquisition. The lanky forward finally got on the scoresheet in a cup game against Derby which kickstarted a blissful career with the Gunners. In the face of a relatively unproductive first three seasons for the Gunners (trophy-wise), save for the Community Shield in 1999, Kanu remained a shining light putting up impressive performances. He earned cult status for the Gunners, a 15-minute hat-trick against Chelsea particularly notable with a ridiculous last goal netted from an obscure angle which was later ranked Arsenal’s 18th greatest goal in history. His brilliant season earned him his second APOTY ahead of Ghana and
Bayern Munich legend, Sammy Kuffour.
Kanu would gradually see less game-time over the next three seasons following the acquisition of the three French Musketeers- Thierry Henry, Sylvain Wiltord and Robert Pires. Henry struck an amazing partnership with Dennis Bergkamp, thus, relegating Kanu to the bench.

‘Papillo’, as Kanu’s fondly called returned home for the 2000 African Cup of Nations . His die-hard critics often criticized his lack of goals but weirdly, the ingenuity deployed in his several assists somehow evade their thought-process in his appraisal. Kanu epitomized such trickery and erraticism which opposition often fail to decipher so much so, one could be tempted to think even Kanu at times, didn’t know what he would do next- he was that phenomenal. He was behind a brilliant hat-trick of assists in the opening game vs Tunisia with two more assists including vs Morocco for Finidi George. The tournament was undeniably Kanu’s best in the s
Super Eagles’ jersey even though he replicated similar levels of assist-wizardry in other AFCON tournaments, notably his back-to-opposition-half, slick chest-turn assist created for John Utaka in the famous win over Cameroon in 2004 rated the best among the lots.

Back to Arsenal, Kanu would establish a reputation as something of a super-sub, netting from the bench: 119 EPL games, 30 goals with 17 of those from the bench.
He occupies the 6th position in Premier League’s all-time ranking of Super-subs: 17 goals from the bench i.e 159.1 mins/goal in 119 games below Solksjaer – 17 in 84 games, 92.9mins and Sturridge also 17 goals, 106.7 mins/goal. He was part of the Invincibles at Arsenal and won four major titles and one Charity Shield. In the end, he ended his successful 5-year spell with Arsenal where he played 195 games in all competitions, scored 43 goals with 23 of those from the bench.

With Arsenal unwilling to renew his contract, Kanu moved on to Bryan Robson’s West Bromwich Albion on a free transfer and earnestly returned to starting 11 football. He helped the club maintain its Premier League status for a few years before it got relegated at the end of the 2005/06 season after making a total of 58 appearances across two seasons and netted nine goals.

Kanu at Westbromwich Albion

Next, was Portsmouth in 2006, with age evidently getting the better of him, he resorted to intellectual play more than physical, a tactic he deployed to the understanding of Manager, Redknapp, and benefit of a crisis-ridden club, Portsmouth. All parties were happy.

Papillo’s spell at Pompey saw him pick up yet another trophy against all odds following the famous FA Cup triumph in the 2007/08 season with the Nigerian netting the only goals in the semis vs former club, West Bromwich Albion and final vs Cardiff. In addition to all adjectives used to describe Kanu’s career, one could also safely say he’s undoubtedly the ‘luckiest’ player in Nigeria’s history as both goals (semis and final) doesn’t truly reflect the realities of Kanu’s 6-year spell at Portsmouth where he was sparingly used. He played 168 times for Pompey across 6 seasons, scored 28 times with 16 of those coming from bench as the Nigerian legend cemented his Super-sub status yet again in English football. His professional retirement coincided with Portsmouth’s relegation after entering administration in 2012, thus, drawing Kanu’s 13-year spell in England to an end. He occupies the 9th position in the Premier League all-time ranking of players with the highest sub appearances with 118 in 315 caps.

Kanu however wasn’t as lucky with the “senior” national team with no major title to his name save for the Afro-Asian cup in 1995 in a 17-year international spell which saw him play 87 times and scored 12 goals. He hardly attained a cult heroic status in the green and white jersey in major CAF and FIFA organized tournaments for the country such that he was never named in any tournament 11 despite being named Arsenal’s 13th GOAT. He was however named 7th on CAF’s highly criticized list as questions were asked about the wisdom behind placing the Nigerian above Ghana legend, Abedi Pele, Rabah Madjer, and Yaya Toure to mention a few. Critics based their argument on how much these 3 players were heavily relied on for club and country to such extent it was hard to imagine their clubs and countries attaining the same level of success without them- a valid argument.

On our part, Kanu missed out on the number one spot because he failed to strike that “fine balance” across all parameters deployed in this compilation. With his major strength being amassing titles, he fell short in other criteria as ‘indispensability’, ‘completeness’ etc.

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