When Nwankwo Kanu moved on a free transfer from one of England's perennial relegation-battlers to another this summer, it was a measure of how low his stock had fallen that observers questioned not his wisdom, but the club's.

According to his critics, a meagre total of nine goals in two seasons with West Bromwich Albion confirmed that this twice-CAF African Footballer of the Year was washed up; his glory days at Arsenal, Inter Milan and Ajax now but a hazy, distant memory.

"People said I shouldn't sign him," Harry Redknapp, Kanu's current manager at Portsmouth, freely admits. "They thought he had lost his pace. But this is a player who plays with his brain. I love him. He is top class, and right now I wouldn't swap him for anyone."

And no wonder. The 31-year-old's form has, after all, been a major reason in establishing Portsmouth among the early Premier League pace-setters, with five goals in his first seven matches hoisting the little south-coast club to a position from which they gaze down on the likes of Arsenal, Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur.

Only Everton's Andrew Johnson has proved more prolific, in fact, and Kanu - whose miserable stint with West Brom ended in relegation - admits that playing under Redknapp, arguably the English game's most renowned wheeler-dealer, has given him a new lease of life.

"Harry gives me the freedom to go out and express myself," said the striker, who turned down offers from Hamburg and an unnamed Spanish club to move to Fratton Park. "He knows what I can do and he tries to use that. I get the chance to do what I want to do and I am enjoying my football again for the first time since I left Arsenal. And when you're enjoying your football, anything can happen. If I keep on laughing and keep on enjoying my game, I can produce even more." 

From Olympic gold to open-heart surgery
All of this, of course, has led to hearty portions of humble pie being dished out to detractors, who, where this particular player was concerned, should really have known better.

The summer of 2006 was not the first time, after all, that Kanu had seen his career given the last rites - indeed, it came exactly 10 years on from the diagnosis of a condition that threatened not only his livelihood, but his life.

Then just 20, Kanu was one of the most sought-after players in world football, having followed winning the UEFA Champions League with Ajax by captaining Nigeria to Olympic gold. He returned from Atlanta to a hero's welcome in his homeland, fully expecting to imminently complete the formalities on a £3.5 million move to Inter Milan, one to which he had already agreed prior to leaving for the Olympics.

A routine medical was to reveal something so shocking, however, that the doctors carrying out the test initially suspected that their equipment was defective. Kanu had a potentially fatal weakness in his aortic heart valve and would need to undergo urgent open-heart surgery if he was to have any hope of playing again.

So it was that, in November 1996, he went under the knife at the Cleveland Medical Center in the USA, where an intricate repair-job was carried out, and it was while the youngster was unconscious that news broke that he had been voted African Footballer of the Year for the first time.

By April the following year, Kanu had been given the all-clear to return to action and, though Inter had decided in the meantime that paying 25 million euros for Ronaldo represented a better investment than gambling on the Nigerian making a successful recovery, Arsene Wenger proved more than happy to part with the £4.2 million it required to prise him from the San Siro. 

A heart of gold
Success, silverware and two FIFA World Cup™ appearances followed during a memorable five-year stint in London, but this was now a player who had learned to judge such achievements in perspective.

"After that situation, I realised there was more to life than football," he recalls. "I knew I had to do something. If an adult could go through such pain, how much worse must it be for kids? The doctors told me that if people had the operation when they're young, they could go on and do whatever they love to do and fulfill their potential."

Filled by a new sense of purpose, the player quickly set about establishing the Kanu Heart Foundation, which was launched in August 2000 with the objective of alleviating the problem of heart-related diseases among children in Africa and establishing dozens of clinics in addition to five specialist hospitals throughout the continent.

Since then, the foundation has arranged for almost 1,000 children - 250 in the last year alone - to travel for live-saving surgery, although with over 2,000 on the waiting-list and in dire need of treatment, it has forced Kanu into postponing the planned programme of hospital-construction, for the moment at least.

"We would like to build hospitals rather than send (the children) abroad because it is much easier to treat them in Africa," he has explained. "But we have a big waiting-list, so when we raise funds, we do not usually keep them (for the building programme) because people on the waiting list may die."

It is this most worthy cause, rather than a career in coaching or the media, that seems certain to become the long-term focus of a remarkable footballer whose philanthropic leanings also led to him becoming a Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF last summer.

"Even if I stop playing football, I will always be involved in the foundation," he vowed recently. "Even if you save one life, that is a lot, so to do 250 in a year - that means more than winning trophies."

To learn more about the Kanu Heart Foundation, contact +44 (0)207 463 2189 or visit www.kanuheartfoundation.com .