It would have been interesting to know how late FRCN sports commentator Ernest Okonkwo would have described birthday man Kanu Nwankwo. For many young people, Okonkwo gave the best nicknames to many Nigerian internationals so I am certain he would have found something appropriate for Kanu.
First saw Kanu during a qualifier for the Japan ’93 U17 World Cup team. I don’t remember who they played against but I noticed this guy who towered above everybody on the pitch but was as skinny as he was skilful. My goodness, his ball control was jaw dropping even back then. In that match he scored 3 or 4 or something silly like that then I read up on the newspapers and found out that he, Karibe Ojigwe and Mobi Oparaku were in the Iwuanyanwu Nationale “feeder team” – as we used to describe youth teams for clubs back then.
By the time they departed for Japan all three players had started playing some league matches for Nationale. Nigeria won that tournament. Kanu had caught the attention of Clemens Westerhof who was in charge of the Super Eagles that the next year as the team was preparing for the US ’94 World Cup Kanu was invited. He went on to make his debut in a 3-1 loss to Sweden in Gotenburg. Westerhof explained though “Kanu is not for this World Cup. He is extremely talented but I want to give him an idea of what it means to play and train with the seniors he is the future of Nigerian football”.
Many remember Kanu’s exploits during the Atlanta edition of the Olympics in 1996. It was absolutely fitting that the then Ajax striker should be the icon of that victory over Brazil in that epic semi-final. Many might have forgotten that during the qualifiers for the Olympics, Kanu was a regular, flying home from Amsterdam to join the players based in Nigeria as Cote d’Ivoire and Egypt amongst others were beaten to get the country there.
The two legged tie Vs a strong Egypt U23 side showed Kanu at his commanding best. He scored twice in the Lagos 1st leg. His 2nd, an incredible level of skill in a crowded penalty box, beating players before slamming the shot home. It was fitting that in Atlanta he was the captain. One of the best images of that Olympics was Kanu throwing the ball in the air at the final whistle of the final Vs Argentina, his teammates ready to surround him.
I can’t find a data to back up my assertion but I believe strongly that Kanu signing for Arsenal during the 1998/99 Premier League season is a factor in the huge fan base Arsenal Football Club have in Nigeria.
He is also a patriot and was willing to come play for his country regularly. Since retiring he will always be found wherever any of the national teams are playing. After the AFCON 2013 win in South Africa, as he came out of the dressing room he saw me, grabbed my arm and looked at me with undiluted joy “these children have won Nations Cup o”. He had told me in a brief interview (In Nelspruit) before the opening game that he trusted them and that in tournaments anything was possible – at a time when nobody gave the team a chance.
Papilo, knowing the shock and fear we had in ’96 when your heart condition was diagnosed, it is with happiness we wish an authentic Nigerian hero Happy Birthday and many, many happy returns of this day 1st of August.