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Black History Month: Kanu can, Kanu did

Nwankwo Kanu embraced whatever role he was given, even from the bench, and excelled.

Paul Lambert, Nwankwo Kanu

Nwankwo Kanu is one of the greatest players the Premier League has ever seen. He was able to score in bunches and get hot when his team needed it the most. And, for much of his time there, he did it as a substitute.

Born in 1976 in Owerri, Nigeria, Kanu grew up loving the game and becoming great at it. He started for a Nigerian club called Federation Works before he moved to Iwuanyanwu Nationale as a 16 year old. It was then that he made it to Nigeria’s U-17 national team, competing in the U-17 World Championships.

From there, he was signed by Ajax in 1993, going on to score 25 goals in 54 appearances. He helped them to win 3 Eredivisie titles, 1 Champions League, an Intercontinental Cup, and a UEFA Super Cup.

Kanu moved to Inter Milan in 1996, and then that summer captained Nigeria to the gold medal at the Olympics. He eventually was named African Footballer of the Year. However, it was discovered after the Olympics that he had a heart defect in his aortic valve. The defect was serious enough that doctors thought it would cost him his career. However, he was able to have corrective heart surgery in November that year, which kept him out until April 1997. Because of the time it took to get back to full fitness, he only scored 1 goal for Inter in 3 seasons. He still was a part of the Inter squad that won the UEFA Cup in 1998.

He made a move to the Premier League in 1999, signing with Arsenal FC. It was here that he began to make his mark on the game of soccer. The Premier League was a physical league, and Kanu was easily able to handle it. At 6’6”, he was able to tower over most of the field. However, he was able to use that vision to his advantage, almost always getting to his spot on the field and using flair and feints to get past his opponents. He operated best as a withdrawn striker, where his creativity would allow him to get to goal.

The best part was that Nwankwo Kanu did most of his damage in a substitute’s role. In stops with Arsenal, West Bromwich Albion, and Portsmouth, he made 118 appearances off the bench, the 3rd most in Premier League history. He scored 81 goals across all competitions for those teams, winning 2 Premier League titles with Arsenal - one as a part of The Invincibles - and 3 FA Cups (2 with Arsenal, 1 with Portsmouth).

Nwankwo Kanu is one of just a few players ever that can say they won a Premier League, FA Cup, Champions League, UEFA Cup, and an Olympic gold medal. He scored 12 times for Nigeria’s senior national team, helping them to a runners-up medal at the 2000 Africa Cup of Nations. He won the African Footballer of the Year and the BBC African Footballer of the Year awards twice each, and in 2021 was named to IFFHS’s All-Time Africa Men’s Dream Team. He is routinely referred to as one of Africa’s greatest talents ever.

Nwankwo Kanu flair and creativity coupled with his size, makes him a memorable player. And while most players wanted to start and go the full 90, he did his damage in just a short period of time off the best...the true definition of a super sub.


For more Black History Month stories, check out our Black History Month hub. We will be bringing stories throughout the month to highlight some of the biggest moments in Black American and world soccer history.