Nwankwo Kanu (OON), born August 1, 1976, is a retired Nigerian footballer who played as a striker. He was a member of and later captained the Nigerian national team for 16 years from 1994 until 2010.
Born in Owerri, Nigeria, Kanu began his career at Nigerian league club Federal Works FC, before moving to Iwuanyanwu Nationale.
After a notable performance at the U-17 FIFA World Cup in 1993 at Japan he was signed by Dutch Eredivisie AFC Ajax in 1993 for 207,047 euros.
He made his Ajax debut the following year and went on to score 25 goals in 54 appearances. Kanu also came on as a sub in Ajax’s 1995 Champions League final win over AC Milan.
In 1996, Ajax sold Kanu to Serie A side Internazionale for around $4.7 million that summer and he captained the Nigerian team that won gold at the Olympics. He scored two late goals in the semi-finals against powerhouses Brazil to overturn a 2–3 scoreline into a 4–3 win in extra time.
Kanu was also named African Footballer of the Year for that year. However, soon after returning from the Olympics, Kanu underwent a medical examination at Inter, which revealed a serious heart defect; he underwent surgery in November 1996 to replace an aortic valve and did not return to his club until April 1997. In interviews, Kanu frequently cites his faith as a Christian, and has often mentioned this trying time of his career as an occasion when he prayed to God.
Kanu’s experience also led to his founding the Kanu Heart Foundation, an organisation that helps predominantly young African children who suffer heart defects and whose work was expanded to provide aid for homeless children in 2008. Kanu is known throughout Africa for his philanthropic work.
In February 1999, after just twelve games and one goal for Inter, Kanu was signed by Arsenal for approximately £4.15 million.
His debut for Arsenal, against Sheffield United in the FA Cup, was a highly unusual match. With the score 1–1 and ten minutes to go, the United goalkeeper, Alan Kelly, kicked the ball out of touch so that treatment could be given to an injured player. When the ball was thrown back into play by Ray Parlour, although it was intended for Kelly, Kanu was unaware of the circumstances. Thinking it to be an attacking move, he chased the throw-in down the right wing unchallenged, and centred the ball for Marc Overmars, who promptly scored to make the match 2–1.
Immediately after the match Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger offered to right the error and replay the match; in the end, Arsenal won that match 2–1 as well.
Despite the events overshadowing his debut, Kanu’s career was quickly revived at Arsenal. He scored his first goal for the club in the next round of the cup against Derby County, coming off the bench to net the only goal of the game. He quickly became known for his goalscoring prowess from the bench, scoring important goals against Sheffield Wednesday, Tottenham Hotspur and Aston Villa as a substitute. He became very popular among the fans for his two-fingered salute – something that he later explained was based on the team’s nickname, The Gunners – which started in 1999 against Middlesbrough.
Kanu was named African Footballer of the Year for the second time in 1999, and in 1999–2000 he scored 17 times in 50 matches for the Gunners, including a hatrick in fifteen minutes against Chelsea to turn a 2–0 deficit to a 3–2 victory.
In August 2001, Arsenal rejected a bid from Fulham of “around £7m” for Kanu. However, Kanu’s appearances for Arsenal gradually became less frequent, particularly after the emergence of Thierry Henry as Arsenal’s first choice striker, when Kanu was mainly used as a substitute.
Despite this, Kanu won the Double with Arsenal in 2002, an FA Cup in 2003 (as an unused sub) and the Premier League title in 2004. His final season brought 10 league appearances – the minimum to qualify for a title winner’s medal.
In all he played 197 games for Arsenal (nearly half of them as a substitute), scoring 44 goals. In the summer of 2004, after his contract with Arsenal ended, he moved to West Bromwich Albion on a free transfer.
In 2008, Kanu was voted 13th in the “Gunners’ Greatest 50 Players” poll.
In his two years at The Hawthorns he made a total of 58 appearances – 16 of them as a substitute – and scored nine goals.
In the summer of 2006, Kanu played as a guest for Arsenal in Dennis Bergkamp’s testimonial game, the first match to be played in Arsenal’s new Emirates Stadium. The game was tied 1–1 when Kanu scored the winning goal, making him the third person to score in the stadium. At the end of the match, Kanu joined the rest of the Arsenal side in hoisting the retired Dutchman on their shoulders as fans gave him a standing ovation. He remains a popular figure at Arsenal, being applauded when he appears at the Emirates Stadium.
Kanu was a free agent following his departure from West Brom, and he signed for Portsmouth on a one-year deal shortly before the start of the 2006–07 season.
In his second season at Portsmouth, Kanu scored in both the FA Cup 1–0 semi-final win against West Bromwich Albion and the 1–0 win in the final against Cardiff City, earning him a third FA Cup winner’s medal.
Kanu was a member of the Nigerian national team from 1994 to 2010, making his debut in friendly against Sweden. Earlier on at the start of his career, Kanu was instrumental in Nigeria’s overall success at the 1993 FIFA U-17 tournament in Japan and their subsequent 2–1 victory over Ghana in the final. With five goals, he was second joint-scorer in the tournament with Peter Anosike and Manuel Neira, behind compatriot and Captain Wilson Oruma.
As well as winning the Olympic gold in the football event at 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, Kanu participated in the 1998 and 2002 FIFA World Cups.
On June 24, 2010, Kanu ended his international career following Nigeria’s exit from the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Nigeria lost their group matches against Argentina and Greece, before a 2–2 draw with South Korea ended their stay in the tournament. He won 86 caps and scored 13 goals for the country and was the joint most capped Nigerian player of all-time alongside Muda Lawal, until Joseph Yobo surpassed both players in 2012, winning his 87th cap.