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Kanu pursuing a dream

London: All footballers say they live for the game but Arsenal’s Nigerian striker Nwankwo Kanu nearly died for it.

Now, as he plays his bit part in Arsenal’s attempt at a Champions League, FA Cup and Premier League treble, Kanu is also repaying the debt he owes heart surgeons by helping to save the lives of African children.

Next month, the Kanu Heart Foundation is organising a charity match to raise funds for a programme which has already enabled 42 disadvantaged youngsters to have cardiac surgery. “I know what I went through and I just kept thinking about the kids,” Kanu said in an interview. “If a grown-up can go through it and feel this pain — how are the kids going to manage' Some of them are less privileged and cannot afford to go to hospital.”

Kanu’s faith in God helped to him face his own personal heart surgery ordeal in 1996 when, as one of Africa’s most exciting young talents, he was reaching the peak of his early career. Football had been Kanu’s first love and endless boyhood games with a small rubber ball helped him to develop the instinctive close control which is still his hallmark today.

Scouted by Ajax Amsterdam in 1993, he swapped Nigeria for the Netherlands as a 17-year-old after helping his country to become world champions at under-17 level in Japan.

Though he readily admits that going abroad was every young player’s ambition, the move had its difficult moments.

“When I went there, it was really cold, the food was different, the language was different — everything was different,” he recalled. “I kept calling my family.”

Eventually Kanu settled in, helped by the acceptance and encouragement of teammates such as Frank Rijkaard.

“I always dreamed that I would be one of the best players in the world one day and when I started with Ajax, everyone noticed what I was doing and the way I was playing,” Kanu said. “People said I was good. And then you have that confidence, that belief in yourself, that you can go higher if you keep working hard.”

Kanu did work hard. He made his league debut within a year, played in Ajax’s 1995 Champions League final victory over AC Milan and established himself as a first-team regular the following season.

In the summer of 1996, Kanu captained Nigeria to the Olympic title after dramatically scoring a 90th-minute equaliser and a golden goal winner in their semi-final victory over much-fancied Brazil.

He also agreed a move to Inter Milan and was just preparing to face the world’s top league when a routine medical examination changed his life.

“I was at the peak of my career,” said Kanu, who was voted African Footballer of the Year in 1996, an award he won again in 1999. “Everything was going fine. I had a new club, I was happy and I’d played a few friendly games for them before the league started.

“Suddenly, I started hearing that I had a heart problem. I’d never had any heart trouble before, never felt tired or any dizziness.”

The diagnosis was a faulty aorta valve which opened normally but did not close properly, causing a leak. It was a life-threatening condition and, according to Kanu, Italian doctors shook their heads and said his career was over. However, specialists in the United States argued that an operation could fix the problem and, potentially, return him to football.

The operation at the Cleveland Clinic was a total success. Kanu made his comeback the following July as a late substitute in a pre-season friendly against Manchester United at San Siro — a match also remembered as Ronaldo’s debut for Inter.

Though he was back at Inter, Kanu suffered a series of niggling injuries and made only a dozen appearances in the 1997-98 season. After helping Nigeria to reach the second round of the World Cup, he appeared only once more in an Inter shirt before joining Arsenal in January 1999.

The move to Highbury has proved to be a mixed blessing for the 26-year-old from Owerri. Though he has never established himself as manager Arsene Wenger’s first-choice striker, Kanu has scored some important goals and played his part in their 2002 double season as a creative force in and around the penalty area.

Judging whether his glass is full or empty is not easy. “I won’t say it’s full because if it were full, it would mean I play in every game and I’d be scoring and I would be on top of the world,” Kanu conceded.

“But I won’t say it’s empty either, because I have been playing and contributing a lot to the team. In the modern game, when you have four or five strikers, it’s always difficult...you have to accept it and go along with it. (Reuters)

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