Former Arsenal striker Nwankwo Kanu, born 1 August 1976, says that his success with the Arsenal helped blaze a trail for African players to come to the Premier League. Kanu signed with Arsenal Feb. 17, 1999 — at a time when the African influence on English football was nearly non-existent. The former Nigeria captain went on to help Arsenal win two league titles and two FA Cups, scoring 44 goals along the way, and said his five-year stint in North London also helped raise the profile of the Premier League in Africa.
“I believe I was the first African person who came to England and who did very well,” Kanu told the Arsenal website. “After that the doors were opened for African talents so, with Arsenal behind me and what we did with Arsenal, everybody now tends to follow the English league, and wants players to come and play in the English league.”
One of his biggest – and most controversial – complaints is to question whether players need full-time agents. “I think you need people who can advise you, that is more important that an agent,” Kanu says. “They are important because they help players move but I have some experience of agents working with players who have done things not to help the player but to help themselves.” He prefers the way Spanish and South American footballers work in using lawyers or business managers.
The issue of how to deal with the exploitation of young African players is not new. Fifa has been discussing it for years with its president, Sepp Blatter, at one time provocatively accusing European clubs of acting like “neo-colonialists”. Football’s governing body wants to see the improvement in domestic leagues, and has poured money into its “Goal” project, and while Kanu agrees with that he also claims it is unrealistic to expect players to shun more lucrative offers overseas. “When there is no money people don’t want to stay,” he says, “but I hope the foundation will advise leagues and associations on how to improve. We do have to find local stars for local leagues so that people can aspire to be them also. But I have to admit that everyone is interested in the Premier League.”
Kanu still a fan favourite at the Emirates, and perhaps best remembered for his late hat trick against Chelsea when Arsenal came from 2-0 down to win 3-2 at Stamford Bridge in 1999. The last goal came deep into injury time, and Kanu remembers that even he was stunned after netting the winner from an almost impossible angle.
“Everybody believed it was over, even me,” Kanu said. “I was like, OK 2-2 is enough for us because we were two down. That’s enough, then we can go eat. We share the points.”
Instead, Kanu chased down a failed clearance, rounded outrushing goalkeeper Ed De Goey and fired a shot over the head of two defenders into the far corner of the net.
“It was difficult because where I got the ball, it was really tight from that angle,” Kanu said. “And I saw some of our players coming, waiting for me to give them the ball. But in my mind, I know that we don’t really have enough time, so I have to do to what I have to do from that angle. Which means you have to pick your target and then shoot, and that’s what I did.”
Kanu also credited Arsene Wenger with helping turn his career around after he needed surgery for a heart defect, which derailed a three-year stint at Inter Milan.
“When I came over I saw a good coach who saw the best in me. I was a good player because he made it easier for me to play,” Kanu said. “Everybody believes that English football is all about playing the ball up, not keeping it on the ground, but Arsene has his own idea of football and it made it easier for us.
“He wanted us to play football the right way, he wanted us to enjoy it by passing the ball around and that’s what we did.”
The 6ft 5in striker was already a double-European Cup finalist – and winner, in 1995, against Milan having also secured three Dutch league titles with Ajax. Aged 19, the world was at his, fairly substantial, feet. Instead a medical at Inter, having already signed and played in pre-season friendlies, showed he had a faulty aortic valve. “When it happened the doctor said to me ‘you can’t play football again’. It was the end of the world. I was scared. But I’m a Christian and I prayed that God would help me,” Kanu says. “The first thing was to have the operation [four hours of open heart surgery in the United States] and once that was successful I never believed I would not play again.”
Kanu Heart Foundation
Kanu already has a heart foundation, named after him, which has been working for the past eight years to save the lives of hundreds of children who need surgery. He now wants that, too, to go further. Instead of flying the patients and their families out of their homelands for their operations he wants to have five hospitals built – in Nigeria, Ghana, Rwanda, Ziwbabwe and Uganda. And for them to be built. “It’s possible,” Kanu says as he explains his hugely ambitious plans. “A lot of companies want to get involved and it can be quick to build things in Africa. They know we can do this.”
One day, soon after signing for Arsenal, Kanu was watching television. It was about the problems of heart surgery, the waiting lists, the operations that needed to be done. The idea of setting up a foundation was born. It started by raising money for two young Nigerian children – Oluwatofunmi Okude and Enitan Adesole – but that was expensive, costing £15,000 each, with the operations in London. Soon children were being taken to Tel Aviv and then Miot Hospitals in India. Two hundred and ninety lives have been saved. “But the main aim of the foundation now is to have hospitals built in Africa,” Kanu says. “I know it’s going to cost a lot of money.” He is looking for companies to help fund the work and take on the naming rights while a charity dinner will take place in London in September to really kick-start the campaigning.
“I get hundreds of letters from all over Africa and that’s where the pressure comes in. You hear the story, and everyone’s story deserves help, and you want to help,” Kanu, whose foundation has a waiting list of more than 1,000 children, says. “There was an incident last year when we were raising money for a family so that a child could have an operation. We’d organised a charity football match but on the morning of the game news came through that the child had died.”
The foundation started in 2000 following his own well-documented heart problems. In the summer of 1996, after leading Nigeria to Olympic Gold, with some superb goals and a string of assists, Kanu was set to be star of Serie A after securing a big-money move to Internazionale.
“The foundation, I hope, will be a big organisation covering lots of different areas and whatever help the players need then we can direct them in the right way and give them the best. A talented footballer comes over, his family depends on him and if his agent or club don’t treat him well he might not succeed and then he feels he’s let everyone down. For years, African players have been exploited. I know a lot who have suffered and the foundation is going to have a big responsibility.”
“The problem is everyone wants to play football,” Kanu says. “Some are lucky, some are not. But we will be open for everyone to call us. I believe that because of my name and who I am and what I have done that they will want to listen.” The foundation will be a joint venture with NVA management, a company run by consultant Chris Nathaniel, whose clients include Rio Ferdinand, Micah Richards and Kanu’s fellow Nigerian Obafemi Martins. All are supportive to his plans.
“Everything starts from a small step,” Kanu says. “We know it’s going to be difficult because there will be some resistance. But if we start right now then we can get things in place. When good things are coming there are always some people, who haven’t been doing good, who will try and stop it. But if you believe in what you are doing and are strong enough then you achieve it. People know who I am and what I have done.
“Some people will be suspicious but they always are when you try and change things. That’s what can happen in Africa. But when they see what we are doing then hopefully that will change. I don’t want to keep quiet and let what I have been doing for so long die. It’s good for me to come out with something like this. And I think clubs will back it because it’s a good idea and when we have the academies also – they will be everywhere – then that will help the clubs.”
Nwankwo Kanu married with children Sean Chukwudi Kanu, Pinky Amarachi Kanu, Iyang Onyekachi Kanu.