Nwankwo Kanu mesmerized the world for two decades, playing at the very top of world football and winning some of the most coveted trophies in the game.
He was picked up as a raw, baby-faced talent on the streets of Nigeria where he kicked football around with kids his age.
Who would have imagined that that little, long legged boy would go on to be regarded as one of the greatest African footballers ever, winning laurels, honour and recognition that was only bettered by a few.
But how did Kanu turn from just a lanky lad to a living legend?
His footballing career, with its countless twists and turns, could have taken many directions most of which would have led him to oblivion. But he somehow survived the horrors, overcame the challenges, made the correct decisions and produced eye-catching magic at just the right moments.
After helping Nigeria to a champion’s trophy at the FIFA U17 World Cup in Japan, Nwankwo Kanu moved to Ajax in the Netherlands.
Nwankwo Kanu had received offers from many other clubs in Europe but Kanu had wisely opted for the Dutch giants. Ajax had a reputation for giving opportunities to talented young ones, grooming them to world class footballers.
Kanu was in the best place for his development. He could have easily earned more money elsewhere but he chose to continue his footballing education. It was a decision he would not regret.
25 goals and 54 appearances later Kanu was a UEFA Champions League and three-time Dutch League winner with Ajax. He had become an important player in a very successful young team.
The former Eaglet star had improved his touch, was more composed in front of goal, knew his role in a team set up, had improved his decision making and his final balls, could read the game better and still retained his guile, trickery and skills on the ball.
Kanu was not yet the finished product but he was frighteningly getting pretty close.
The Atlanta Olympic Games in 1996 came at a key moment in Nwankwo Kanu’s career. It was time to show that he could replicate club performances for country.
In a Dream Team that had World Cup heroes Daniel Amokachi, Uche Okechukwu and Emmanuel Amuneke as well as ex-Eaglets skipper Wilson Oruma, Nwankwo Kanu was handed the captain’s band. It was time to deliver.
And, boy, did he deliver!
With Nigeria facing defeat in their semi-final game against favourites Brazil, Kanu scored a memorable equaliser to bring the score level at 3-3 and drag the game into extra time.
Minutes later, the captain whipped in a delightful golden goal past Dida in Brazil’s goal from the edge of the box to secure victory for the Dream Team and send it into the final where they defeated Argentina 3-2 to win Africa’s first Olympic football gold medal.
It was Nigeria’s most beautiful footballing moment and Nwankwo Kanu had been the undisputed catalyst. His name would forever be woven into Nigeria’s footballing folklores.
The star had finally arrived. And his legend had begun.
After that Olympic victory, great things were expected of the Nation’s newest hero. Kanu was recognised by CAF as Africa’s Best Player in 1996 and everything seemed to be falling in to place for the Enugu-born striker.
Then Kanu moved to Inter from Ajax and nothing just could go wrong against the golden boy. He was ready for the big leagues and the huge pay checks.
Then tragedy struck, even before he had kicked a ball in Italy.
At Internazionale, Kanu was discovered to have a heart defect while undergoing medicals. It was a situation that shocked the entire nation and continent. Suddenly, the golden boy looked like he was going to have his life and career cut short.
The initial diagnosis was saddening, Kanu’s condition required surgery and he may never play football again and that is even if he didn’t lose his life. Messages of hope and love were sent his way. Prayers were said for him.
Thankfully, the surgery was successful and Kanu recovered remarkably. He had battled death and won, his fighting spirit helping him out. Against all odds, Kanu returned to the field of play.
After his surgery, Kanu was just glad to be cleared to play football again.
But Inter were not ready to risk too much. During a three year stay at the Italian giants, Nwankwo Kanu only managed 12 league appearances. His Italian experience had not gone as he would have wished.
He needed a fresh start. A second chance. And that was what Arsene Wenger offered him.
In 1999, Kanu moved to the English Premier League (EPL) where he became Arsenal’s first African signing.
In those days only a few people in Nigeria watched English football. It was regarded as static and boring.
But the lanky Nigerian killed that notion with his performances. In no time, he began to recruit a large following for the Gunners that still stands to this day.
It didn’t take long before Papillo warmed himself into the hearts of Arsenal fans. They loved his little flicks, his deft dribbles, his impact from the bench and the skills that even Arsene Wenger exclaimed could not be coached.
But one match cemented Kanu’s name in Arsenal’s history forever.
It was a game against Arsenal’s bitter rivals, Chelsea at the Stamford Bridge. With Arsenal already two goals down and facing defeat, Wenger played his ace card from the bench and brought Kanu into the fray.
Papillo grabbed the game by its scruff and didn’t release it until he had notched a hat-trick to give the Gunners a 3-2 win over their bitter city rivals.
The highlight of the match was the ease and talent with which Kanu waltzed past the Blues goalkeeper and defenders before striking the ball into the top corner from an impossible angle for his third goal.
His once-dying career was back on track.
In 1996, Kanu was diagnosed with a hole in his heart.
The condition was discovered during a routine medical check. It could have been missed and Kanu could have dropped dead unannounced while on the football pitch. Quite a few footballers had died of heart issues without even knowing it.
Kanu needed heart surgery and he needed it fast.
Before 1996, only a few people had ever survived heart surgery and it cost a fortune to get the operation done. But Nwankwo Kanu beat death to the game.
After his successful heart surgery, Kanu moved to set up the Kanu Heart Foundation, a non-governmental organisation with the overriding objective of helping many Africans to get access to medical care.
Football gave him his life back. And he positioned himself to help save others with the same heart condition.
It was unprecedented.
The stuff legends are made of.
Kanu’s stay at Arsenal was his most productive since he left Ajax.
In five seasons in North London, he won two Premier League and two FA Cup titles and was part of the ‘Invincibles’ who went the whole 2003-04 season without losing a game. For a man who was so close to dying, that was some turn around.
In all he played 197 games for Arsenal (nearly half of them as a substitute), scoring 44 goals.
In 2008, Kanu was voted 13th in the "Gunners' Greatest 50 Players" poll by Arsenal fans. It was a show of their recognition of his contributions to the Londoners’ cause in his time there.
Nwankwo Kanu’s two FA Cup titles won with Arsenal had already lifted him into the elite group of players who could boast the winner’s medal on their chest.
Even fewer had won the world’s oldest club competition with two different teams.
When Kanu’s time in London was done, he moved to Portsmouth and his seemingly tiring legs were rejuvenated and he rediscovered his goal-scoring touch.
Scoring key goals, Kanu helped the Seasiders to an FA Cup title in 2008, his third FA Cup winner’s medal in England.
His winning goal for Portsmouth in the final against Cardiff City effectively sealed his legend in English football.
Before Samuel Eto’o won the accolades off him, Nwankwo Kanu
was the most decorated African player ever. He had won league titles in three
different countries, the UEFA Cup, and the UEFA Champions League.
Kanu also played at three FIFA World Cups and appeared at five CAF African Nations Cups.
Although, he never found the back of the net in any of those tournaments and is one of several African greats who never won the African Championships, Nwankwo Kanu was instrumental in helping Nigeria earn silver and bronze honours at the continental Championship and a respectable second round finish at the 1998 World Cup in France.
Kanu was named African Footballer of the Year twice, the first in 1996 and then in 1999.
No one would ever question his fighting spirit. Or belittle his footballing achievements.
Or doubt his legend.
Long live King Kanu!