By Ephraim Nwosu
23 years after undergoing a heart surgery in the United States of America, to correct a faulty aortic valve, Arsenal legend and former Super Eagles captain, Nwankwo Kanu, has recalled how he survived and continued with his soccer career at a time when all hope seemed to be lost .
Shortly after leading the Nigerian Dream Team to win the 1996 Olympics football gold in Atlanta, there were strong indications that Kanu’s promising young career could only go from strength to strength, and his subsequent move to Italian giants, Inter Milan, should have been another step upwards.
However, disaster struck few days after signing for the Serie A powerhouse, as Kanu was advised to quit professional football by team doctor. The sad experience prompted him to set up a heart foundation to build five hospitals in Africa to treat undiagnosed heart disease and provide surgery.
Speaking in a special telephone interview with The Nigerian Express, Papillo, as Kanu loved to be called, recalled how he bounced back from the shock to pick back the pieces of his career.
“It’s all about faith and sheer determination. Nevertheless, a big credit must go to Arsene Wenger for helping me then to save my career at a time all hope of playing football at the highest level was almost lost. He is a nice gentleman with good heart. I want to use this medium to thank him once again for believing in me and giving me the opportunity to save my career at Arsenal, that was 14 months after my heart surgery. For me, it was like a miracle,” Kanu told The Nigerian Express.
“Wenger opened a new chapter in my football career and gave me a new lease of life after Piero Volpi (the Inter Milan team doctor, who discovered a defective aortic valve in Kanu’s heart) called me up at the hotel and advised me to give up football. Wenger also gave me new hope, all the necessary support and motivation to succeed at a time when the situation seems to be hopeless and made me believe that there could be light at the end of the tunnel. And at the end of the day, it happened to be so by God’s grace. Wenger is a great coach and I will ever remain grateful to him and my fans but to Almighty God, I give the greatest glory,’’ he eulogised.
When asked to name his most favourite club, he opted for Arsenal among all the clubs he featured for throughout his professional career that saw him playing for Ajax Amsterdam, Inter Milan, West Bromwich Albion and Portsmouth FC, admitting that he had the best moment of his career while starring for the Gunners.
“I’m emotionally attached to all the clubs I played for but as you all know Arsenal occupies a special place in my heart. It’s a club that will ever remain green in my memory, perhaps, due to the circumstances that led me to join the club. I think I had great fun at Highbury and it was an incredible feeling. With the help of Arsene Wenger I resurrected and had one of the best moments of my career,’’ Kanu, one of Africa’s most decorated players recalled with nostalgia.
“It’s true I won a big trophy like the Champions League with Ajax and the UEFA Cup with Inter Milan, among many other trophies but I made my mark at Arsenal as well as winning so many trophies there as well.’’
On Arsenal chances of breaking the EPL title jinx it last won in 2003/2004 season, Kanu noted:
“I don’t think they started badly this season. If they maintain the momentum and keep on playing the Arsenal way, I believe they can get better as the season progresses. The boys are giving everything; with hard work and highest degree of devotion and dedication, I am optimistic they can end up in top four. Yes, they can. Arsenal has a great team with a fantastic new manager.’’
The two-time African footballer of the Year joined Arsenal in the winter of 1999 from Inter Milan and appeared 198 times for the Londoners, netting 48 goals with the most memorable being his famous hat trick against Chelsea to turn a 2-0 deficit to a 3-2 victory. In 2008, he was voted 13th in the “Gunners’ Greatest 50 players poll.”