Nwankwo Kanu’s professional career was truly remarkable given his achievements in Dutch and English football.
The Nigeria legend enjoyed an enviable career across Europe which brought Champions League success with Ajax and that incredible campaign with Arsenal where Arsene Wenger’s troops went the entire season without blemish.
Those two years in 1994/95 and 2004/04 probably stand out as the two-time African Footballer of the Year’s most memorable seasons in his storied career, but there were others: for one playing an important part in West Bromwich Albion surviving relegation in 2004/05, while there was that historic 2007/08 with Portsmouth which ended in FA Cup triumph, Pompey’s first since 1939.
It all began with success at the 1996 Olympics with Nigeria when the Dream Team won gold somewhat against all odds to continue a bright period for the West African nation that was birthed two years earlier with success at the Africa Cup of Nations.
Kanu, winner of the U-17 World Cup in 1993, wasn’t part of the ’94 Afcon squad and actually never won the most illustrious title on the continent with the Super Eagles, having to make do with a runners-up medal in 2000, and third-place in 2002, 2004, 2006 and 2010.
In fairness, it’s not an easy job picking out the legendary forward’s best moment in the sport…or is it?!
The Super Eagles icon won the lot, but just how much of an individual input did he contribute in the collective accomplishments?
Ajax’s vaunted class of 94/95 went the entire European campaign unbeaten, but Kanu started only three of those games while making four substitute appearances.
The towering attacker’s goal contributions were limited too, although, he did make a telling impact in the side’s swashbuckling 5-2 semi-final second-leg thrashing of Bayern Munich by setting up two of the five goals.
He thrived in the Eredivisie, finishing the campaign with 10 goals from 18 appearances, an impressive return for someone who was left out of the squad by Louis van Gaal in the first eight-game weeks plus an additional five matches in mid-season.
However, if fans of the Dutch giants reminisce over the class of ’95, the Nigerian striker’s name wouldn’t be first on their lips owing to his somewhat lessened contribution in that Champions League campaign compared with other teammates.
Finidi George, for instance, started 10 of 11 European fixtures, with a further 30 from 34 in the league. Kanu’s contribution paled in comparison.
Interestingly, the striker was a more important figure in 95/96, where he made 30 Eredivisie appearances (20 starts) for de Godenzonen and scored 13 times. Furthermore, the frontman featured from the off in seven games on their run to another CL final, which ultimately ended in defeat by Juventus on penalties.
A successive continental crown for Ajax may have been Kanu’s most defining moment, but it wasn’t to be.
At Arsenal, the West African enjoyed two major successful campaigns – 2001/02 and 03/04 – yet the Double-winning campaign rivals and arguably even supersedes the Gunners’ Invincibles year.
Curiously, on a personal note for Kanu, neither season can rival his 1999/00 year in which he netted 12 times in 31 Premier League appearances.
Three of those came against London rivals Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, a match where the two-time African POTY scored a 15-minute hat-trick to overturn a 2-0 deficit. That moment remains his most iconic in the English top-flight, a telling fact given he won the Double once and was part of the side that went unbeaten.
In somewhat similar circumstances to Ajax in 94/95, Kanu was in and out of the team that won the league and FA Cup. He started just nine top-flight games and was a peripheral figure in their cup run too, evidenced by a combined 10 minutes in the semi-final and final.
When Wenger’s troops went unbeaten, the frontman made just 10 appearances which, at the time, was only good enough for a winner’s medal. In his final year in North London, he started just three of the aforementioned games, scoring only once.
His two-year stint with West Bromwich was admirable given the Albion became the first side to be bottom at Christmas and still retain their place in the division at the climax of 04/05.
Furthermore, he was instrumental in the team’s first-ever comeback victory in the Premier League – notably against old side Arsenal – where his equalizer instigated the turnaround at the Hawthorns.
Be that as it may, Kanu’s crowning glory came at his last Premier League side Portsmouth.
This isn’t merely a sentimental pick because Pompey was the decorated striker’s final club before he called time on his career, rather a celebration of what two really important goals meant to the club from Hampshire.
Having failed to make an FA Cup final since 1939, the forward not only scored to ensure their participation at the final of the oldest cup competition in the sport’s history but also win it for the first time in 69 years.
Neither strike was a belter or solo effort, just some old-school poaching; still, they were arguably the most momentous of his storied career as he won his third and final FA Cup.
“There were people crying around us, it was a brilliant atmosphere,” Portsmouth life-long supporter Jack Payne recollected in 2015. “I won’t trade winning the cup for financial stability as it was one of the best feelings ever.”
“It was very surreal, really, that we got the cup. You’d seen it as a kid and all of a sudden it’s in your changing room,” stated Kevin McCormack, the club’s kit man since 1998.
Payne confessed to the hardship the club’s endured since that unexpected run in 2008, but it only makes them savor their big day at Wembley even more…and Kanu made it happen!
After a career that took him from Olympic Gold with the Dream Team to Champions League success with Ajax, followed by a double-winning season, as well as the only unbeaten campaign ever recorded in Premier League history at Arsenal, the Nigerian’s time at Portsmouth, will never be forgotten.
Kanu’s pair of goals brought tears to locals, won them the FA Cup for the first time in nearly seven decades, and took them to their only European campaign in the club’s history.