More than 15,000 fans defied the torrential rains to be at the Teslim Balogun Stadium in Lagos to say goodbye to Nwankwo Kanu as he called time on an international career that spanned over 17 years. The cheering fans proudly displayed banners in tribute to the 34-year-old icon: “Kanu is our legend, we will always love you”, “Who will be like Kanu?” and “King Kanu!” were just some of them.
A galaxy of stars from around the world also came out to honour the two-time African Footballer of the Year. Lining up on the side of ‘Kanu Friends’ were Samuel Eto’o, Rigobert Song, Stephane Mbia, Jean Makoun (Cameroon), Benjani (Zimbabwe), Kalilou Fadiga (Senegal), Sulley Muntari, Samuel Kuffour (Ghana), Emmanuel Eboue (Côte D’Ivoire), Emmanuel Adebayor (Togo) and George Boateng (Netherlands) as well as fellow Nigerians Austin ‘Jay Jay’ Okocha and Taye Taiwo. Chelsea and Ghana star Michael Essien was also on the sidelines.
On the other side, the ‘Super Eagles Stars’ were made up of past and present Nigerians: Finidi George, Uche Okechukwu, Mutiu Adepoju, Ike Shorunmu, Yakubu Aiyegbeni, Peter Rufai, Danny Shittu, Daniel Amokachi and Joseph Yobo among others. And they outscored the 'Friends' 3-1, with Kanu fittingly opening the scoring, before Ikechukwu Uche doubled the lead for the ‘Super Eagles Stars’ just before the interval.
Self-confessed Kanu fan Emmanuel Adebayor reduced the tally late in the second half, and Real Zaragoza striker Uche got his brace at the tail end of this entertaining match, in which the likes of retired Rufai and Okocha again showed glimpses of their skills.
Afterwards various luminaries were full of praise for the ex-Ajax, Inter Milan and Arsenal player. “I played against Kanu several times. He was a very skilful player despite his height. It’s an honour to have known such a great talent,” said former Ghanaian great Kuffour. Real Madrid striker Adebayor said Kanu was a role model for him: "I moulded my career in his image, and he is still my inspiration and hero as a footballer.”
“He’s one of the most intelligent players on the pitch and very skilful. He had a great sense of timing and superb last pass. World football is losing another living legend,” added Ghanaian icon Anthony Baffoe, while Cameroon legend Eto’o praised the Nigerian’s inspiration, saying: "Kanu is without a doubt the most successful and talented footballer I have ever seen on the field.”
Papilo looks back
Kanu himself reflected on the occasion with his usual grace and humility, while looking back over such a full career. “Players will come and go. I’m out and others will come after me,” said the man known as Papilo, who is now the joint-record capped Nigeria player with 86 appearances. “But they will have to work hard for everything because nobody can be on top of the world as the world is too big.”
Kanu was the key figure for Nigeria when they won the 1993 FIFA U-17 World Cup in Japan, scoring five goals in six victories. The bean-pole forward made his full international debut in May 1994 against Sweden and is best remembered for leading his country to a first-ever Olympic gold for an African team at Atlanta 1996. “Winning Olympic gold at Atlanta ’96 was the highlight of my international career. No African team had won gold before then and we were not favourites to win, but we went on to beat favourites Argentina and Brazil with all their top stars to become champions,” said Kanu, who also featured at the 1998, 2002 and 2010 FIFA World Cups™.
Kanu’s individual skills came to the fore in the semi-final of the 1996 Olympics against a Brazilian team complete with Bebeto and Ronaldo. Kanu brought Nigeria’s Dream Team level on the stroke of 90 minutes and four minutes into extra time, he netted a breath-taking ‘golden goal’ winner to catapult the exciting young Africans to the final against Argentina. “It’s a pity he is quitting now. He was magic,” said Dutch coach Johannes Bonfrere, who was in charge of that history-making team.
But of course it was not all highlights for Papilo. “If I really have to pick my biggest regret, it would probably be the loss in the Nations Cup final against Cameroon in 2000. We really wanted to win the game for the fans,” revealed the forward, who missed his own penalty kick in the shootout after the Lagos clash was even at 2-2 after extra time.
Kanu keeps giving back
Kanu also needed surgery in 1996 to correct a heart defect that seemed to have brought a promising career to a premature end. But typical of his charitable streak, the forward has since given back to Nigeria through his foundation, which has assisted over 250 children with heart ailments since 2000.
“The Kanu Heart Foundation is a great public initiative, and Kanu is an ambassador for change who has addressed an area which we as government may not have focused very well on,” acknowledged Governor of Lagos State Babatunde Fashola, who also played in the match.
“The most important gold I'm winning now is to save the lives of those who have heart problems. If I do that, I have won the African Nations Cup and the World Cup put together,” said Kanu, proving that even when faced with the end of a glittering football career - at least on the international stage - he will continue to be a man of the people of Nigeria.