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Thursday, 4 August 2016


On a hot Monday afternoon in July, pupils of the Taiye Academy were hard at work on the sandy pitch of Uzi Primary School unperturbed by the din of a Pentecostal preacher nearby as they practiced in a ten-a-side game.

Keenly watching over the session was its founder Kennedy Ezenwere, whose methods have come to famously unearth two key talents of Nigerian youth football – the two Kelechis, Iheanacho and Nwakali.

Yet in Owerri, the capital of Imo State in eastern Nigeria, one name stands out, head and shoulders above the deluge of star footballers that have come out of the city, that man Nwankwo Kanu.

For many academy owners, the grand idea is to unearth that player with the class and grace of the former Nigeria captain who famously led his country to win its first Olympic men’s football gold medal 20 years ago.

Such is the impact of the former Arsenal man in Owerri that he has inspired many young people to take to the game.

Born of parents from Abia State, Kanu grew up in Owerri where he attended the famous Holy Ghost College. It was from that school that the teenager’s fame grew across eastern Nigeria in the early 1990s. For a player so young, he would cause a bidding war between Owerri-based Iwuanyanwu Nationale and their richer neighbours from Aba, Enyimba.

Kanu: The lanky boy who shook the world at Atlanta ‘96

Secondary school football is taken seriously here because it was from secondary school that Kanu was discovered,” said Ori Martins, a journalist based in Owerri.
However, due to his father’s close relations with Nationale as a ranking member of its supporters club, the young Kanu signed up to play for his hometown club in the 1992/93 season under the watch of general manager Uche Ejimofor, a former journalist.

The teenager’s skills brought early fame and he packed the stands with local fans who wanted to catch a glimpse of his magic at the weather-beaten Dan Anyiam Stadium on Wetheral Road.

Ejimofor also had to fight off interest from the mighty Lagos-based Stationery Stores in his prized asset after a key performance in the commercial capital left their opponents stunned by the array of his passing.

Kanu was called up into the Nigeria cadet squad that went on to win the Fifa U17 World Cup in Japan in 1993 where he scored five goals behind team mate Wilson. It is interesting that Kanu was twice sent home from camp by the coaches but the men at the Imo FA prevailed on them to give him a chance.

After the triumph, he was courted by several European clubs that had become wizened to his immense potential. But it was Ajax of Amsterdam that won out due to the influence of former Nigeria coach Clemens Westerhof.

Kanu: The lanky boy who shook the world at Atlanta ‘96

With Ajax he had a very good run under Guus Hiddink after coming through the youth team and impressing at the first team. Soon he was in the Champions League squad as they ran to the final and won the title in 1995 against AC Milan.

A second final in 1996 ended in penalty shootout defeat to Juventus but Kanu went into the summer with great hope as he led the Nigeria U23 side, with two players above that age, to the Olympic Games in Atlanta.

He had captained the side through the qualifiers where he scored key goals to help the team past Egypt in the final hurdle in Lagos.

As a 19-year-old, Kanu was leader of a team that had several older players from the victorious Africa Cup of Nations team of 1994 – Daniel Amokachi (23), Uche Okechukwu (28) and Emmanuel Amuneke (the 25-year-old 1994 African Footballer of the Year), Sunday Oliseh (22), Jay Jay Okocha (23), Victor Ikpeba (23 – would be named African Player of the Year in 1997), Tijani Babangida and Garba Lawal (both 22) among many other stellar talents.

It was not an easy task getting all the big egos to fall into line but Kanu’s inspirational figure with his thin 1.97m frame ensured he managed it despite all the financial problems that the team faced in the build up to the tournament.

Kanu: The lanky boy who shook the world at Atlanta ‘96

At the Games, Kanu scored the lone goal as Nigeria won their first group game against Hungary before they defeated Japan 2-0 but narrowly lost the third against Brazil and reached the knock out rounds where they defeated Mexico 2-0.

Awaiting them in the semi final was Brazil once more and this time the stakes were higher. The Selecao raced into an early 3-1 lead inside the Sanford Stadium in Florida but the resolute Nigerians came back into the game. Ikpeba made it 3-2 before Kanu worked his magic to make it 3-3 on the stroke of full time.

In extra time, the lanky Kanu put the game beyond the South Americans scoring from outside the box with a low ball past Dida, taking Nigeria to the final, a place where no African team had reached before.

“We are coming out to play our best against Argentina,” Kanu said on the eve of the final.

Kanu: The lanky boy who shook the world at Atlanta ‘96

The final came on August 3, 1996 as Kanu filed out with his team of world beaters who came from behind once more to defeat an Argentina side that consisted of Ariel Ortega, Claudio Lopez and Hernan Crespo.

Celestine Babayaro equalized after Lopez had put the Argentines into an early lead. Amokachi then cancelled Crespo’s penalty in the second half and Amuneke made it 3-2 from a free kick to send Nigeria into rapturous splendour.

The gold medals were dished out to the Nigerians who celebrated with wild abandon inside the stadium. Back home, the streets of many African countries were packed that early morning as fans chanted in celebration of the feat of the Dream Team.

The Post Express headline the next day read: “Argentina sneezes: Nigeria catches gold” while the New York Times called it “A victory for the world to see”.

As many Africans celebrated Nigeria’s victory, no one could forget the impact of the lanky boy who shook the world with his crew of conquerors.

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