In the game of life, there are always seats reserved for fame, fortune, luck and divine intervention. Add grace and fortitude to the mix and you’ll get a great rags-to-riches story. This has been the run of play so far for Kanu Nwankwo, the Nigerian soccer star who has written his name across world football.
In his 35 years, Nwankwo has become a shining star; a poor boy from the streets who became a global champion and authentic African hero. Now in the twilight of his career, he plays out his footballing days with English club Portsmouth. He is also a devoted husband and father of three, who is fashioning himself into a savvy investor in Nigeria. His £10,000 a week for kicking a ball are being poured into real estate, the hospitality industry, art, photography and philanthropy.
On the soccer field, Nwankwo can do no wrong. His admirers cheer his moves on the field, expecting his every touch of the ball to lead to magic; easily forgiving him when he miskicks or falls down during one of his numerous tricky sorties goal. And when he howls or winces in pain on the pitch, they cry and howl in solidarity. When he scores and breaks into his peculiar two-finger salute and dance, swaying from side to side and flapping his arms in jubilation, they laugh and fall in love with him all over again. That’s blind loyalty for you. Crazy, but that’s what loyal devotees of the game do for their gods.
“Papillo”, as he is fondly called by his fans, is adored by soccer enthusiasts from across Africa and worshipped in his homeland. A level head and obvious sense of propriety off the field is earning him more respect.
Nwankwo’s posh and polished lifestyle is a far cry from his early days. Surrounded by the social accessories of achievement—security guards, butlers, personal masseurs and hairstylists, mansions in the ritzy parts of Lagos
and London, first class air travel, chauffeur-driven SUVs and sedans, you get the picture—he maintains an easy, friendly mien. “I always remember how and where I started,” he says during his FORBES AFRICA interview.
Nwankwo and his three siblings grew up in eastern Nigeria. His older brother, the original “Papillo”, also played soccer in secondary school, until a knee injury shattered his career.
So “Papillo’s brother”, as Nwankwo was then known, gradually earned the name through sheer soccer brilliance, playing his way out of his rustic beginnings into the bright lights.
“My parents were not rich but they were modest, hardworking people,” he told FORBES AFRICA. “They always encouraged us to work hard, pray and do our possible best in whatever we were doing,” he says.
“They never discouraged me from playing football. It’s kind of funny, but everyone believed in me then… I was always winning, throughout my primary and secondary school days. I was always being picked to play for our school teams and later representing my state in age group competitions, and I was always team captain.”
His natural talent for the game earned him many friends early in life, and of course, some extra cash.
“I was having fun, going to school and making some money from football; everyone wanted me to play for their team,” he says.
One of his first clubs, semi-professional Federal Works, used to send a scout to fetch him from home and seek his parents’ permission ahead of their weekend fixtures.
“So I used my talent to support my upkeep…I used the money to buy clothes and books,” he says.
Talent always travels. He didn’t stay at Federal Works, where he scored nine times in 30 games, for too long. Richer, bigger clubs noticed him. In 1992, he laced his boots for Nigerian club side Iwuanyanwu Nationale, playing for slightly over a year before signing for AFC Ajax of Amsterdam for €207,047.
“Ajax was where I had my first taste of international pro football and became a man, soccer-wise. My dream of playing professional football abroad had come true.
“I was happy… It was also a difficult time for me. Suddenly, I found myself in Europe. Everything was new and strange–the environment, the food, the weather, the people, the culture, but I had no choice but to cope,” he says.
Beyond these niggling issues, his star shone brightly at Ajax. His skills matured as the team won three Dutch league titles, the UEFA Champions League trophy, the UEFA Super Cup and the Intercontinental Cup.
Back home, he was captain of the “Dream Team”—the name of Nigeria’s soccer team that travelled to the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games. Nwankwo helped to demolish soccer giants Brazil and Argentina, winning Nigeria’s first-ever gold medal from Olympic soccer.
A promising future beckoned. He was young, at the top of his game and famous—the perfect blend of talent and tactical discipline. Football and fortune featured in his
Just before the 1996 Atlanta Games, Internazionale Milan had shown serious interest in the young man. That summer, for about $4.7 million, Ajax released Nwankwo to the Italian Serie A club. A few weeks later, in Rome, disaster struck. A medical examination revealed he had a potentially life-threatening heart defect.
His reaction was disbelief and denial. Nwankwo and many of his fans were in shock. He had no family history of heart disease. He wondered how the ailment could have been undetected by his previous clubs. He sought varied medical opinions, hoping to debunk the diagnosis.
“Finally, when I realized that ‘oh yes, I may not play football anymore’, I knew that I still had a lot in me. I just put myself in God’s hands. At that time, I was like, well, okay God is going to do it for me. Doctors said I could fix the heart problem later on, but I would not be able to play football. Or, I could do corrective surgery right away and see how things turn out. I felt it was better for me to do the operation rather than wait to do it later. It was the lowest point for me in my career,” he says.
The rest of the story is part of the Nwankwo legend. He had successful heart surgery to replace an aortic valve in the USA in November 1996, recovered well and was back on the practice pitch six months later. “Coming back from that episode was wonderful, you know; I had to be tough, but growing up as a kid toughened me up, so my background growing up in Nigeria helped, it gave me hope that I can achieve under whatever circumstances,” he says.
Nwankwo is forever grateful to Inter Milan president Massimo Moratti for his support during this period of his career.
“Moratti and the rest of the Inter Milan team were fully behind me, they didn’t once stop paying me… they were constantly praying for me to come back. I wish every club president was like him; that’s a huge lesson in loyalty for the rest of the sports world,” he says.
Going under the knife to fix a faulty heart artery did not in any way affect Nwankwo’s football wizardry. He stayed with Inter Milan for another year, and moved on to Arsenal in 1999, playing with panache for the English club for the next five seasons. He has also played for other English sides— West Bromwich Albion and Portsmouth, signing a new three-year contract with the latter in August 2010.
Nwankwo’s illustrious international soccer career with Nigeria spanned 16 years at the national team level and 21 years at the club level. He is clearly one of Nigeria’s most celebrated footballers, with a Nigeria Premier League trophy; three Dutch League titles; a UEFA Champions League medal; a UEFA Cup medal; one English Premier League Cup; three English FA Cups; an Olympic gold medal; and the FIFA U-17 title to his name. He has also featured in several FIFA World Cups and African Cup of Nations tournaments.
He was voted CAF African Footballer of the Year in 1996 and 1999, and the BBC African Footballer of the Year in 1997 and 1999.
Nwankwo succeeded teammate and friend Austin ‘Jay Jay’ Okocha as captain of Nigeria’s national team, the Super Eagles, between 2006 and 2010. He won 86 caps and scored 13 goals for his country and is the joint most capped Nigerian player of all time alongside mid-field maestro, the late Muda Lawal.
He holds the record for most substitute appearances in English Premier League history, appearing from the bench 118 times. As the season came to a close, Portsmouth was struggling to avoid relegation at the bottom of the English Championship. Beset by financial problems, the future of the club is uncertain. Nwankwo says he will stick with Portsmouth through thick and thin.
Back home in Nigeria, there is much to do. Inspired by his near-tragic experience, he set up the Nwankwo Heart Care Foundation in 2000. Funded mainly by the soccer legend and a small coterie of friends, he says the foundation has sponsored over 450 indigent children from all over Africa for surgery in England, Israel and India over the last decade.
“I kind of carry the burden of Africa on my shoulders; everyone prayed for me when I was ill,” he tells FORBES AFRICA.
“We get letters from all over Africa. The demand for medical aid from across the continent is huge and our aim is to help any poor African kid who has any medical problem. It’s been very difficult raising funds.”
His grand vision for the foundation is to have specialist hospitals for kids in several African cities. “It’s a very big task, a huge hurdle, and we hope that governments and the private sector in Africa and the Middle East can come to support our noble cause,” he says. The first of such facilities will be a N5 million cardiac hospital for under-12s in Abuja, Nigeria’s administrative and diplomatic capital.
“As a kid, I wanted to be the best man in football. But now, it’s a mixture. FIFA has given me a gold medal for my contributions to football, so I think that now, everyone will at least remember me as ‘Kanu the great footballer’. But what I would really like to be remembered for is as the man who gives hope and joy back to those who need it through our work at the Kanu Heart Care Foundation.”
Kanu On African Football
Kanu Nwankwo bade farewell to international football with a testimonial game in April 2011. The match featured ex-Nigerian stars and Nwankwo’s colleagues and friends playing in Europe and Africa.
Now, as a UNICEF Ambassador for Sports, he gets to go to big cities and to the nooks and crannies of the continent, preaching football, giving speeches at town hall meetings and inspiring young folks to attend school as well as play soccer.
On football administration and management, and the future of the game in Africa, he says: “For me, the most important thing about football in Africa is the administration. The people in charge need to rev up their act. If we don’t have the right people in football, we will keep going round in circles. The game is undergoing an interesting time in Africa. No country is an underdog anymore in Africa… every team has to work very hard, football in Africa is growing so fast…”
On the matter of foreign coaches versus indigenous coaches: “It all depends on management, but we just can’t sit down and condemn our local coaches. It’s all about constant retraining and refreshing. The football federations need to invest in their human resources; we have seen cases where our African coaches have done well even with little support, while foreign coaches who get all the attention and support of their FAs (football associations) fumble when it matters most.”
He is modest about his net worth, maintaining that his life has been a blessed one. So which Kanu does he prefer to hang out with: is it Kanu the footballer, Kanu the philanthropist, Kanu the businessman or Kanu the family man? “I would say, Kanu the family man, because family comes first. My family is the key to whatever I have achieved in life. God has blessed me with a wonderful wife, Amarachi…our match is made in heaven.”
His relationship with food can be described as indigenously continental. “I eat all types of food. I can’t stay for long without eating Nigerian food: I either go out to a Nigerian or African restaurant to eat it, or I buy the ingredients. I have to eat African food at least once every week. That’s why we tend to eat Chinese – it’s the closest thing to hot and spicy jollof rice.”