Class act

Nwankwo Kanu scored 25 goals in three seasons in Amsterdam and tasted Champions League glory in 1995. His value soared the following summer as he helped Nigeria to Olympic victory in Atlanta, writes Andy Hampson.

One of the greatest-ever African footballers, Nwankwo Kanu is an outrageously talented and tricky striker who has enjoyed considerable success in Europe and excelled on the international stage. Now plying his trade with Portsmouth in the Barclays English Premier League, Kanu has played for some of Europe's biggest clubs in Ajax, Inter Milan and Arsenal.

Kanu was born in Owerri in southeast Nigeria and was playing first division football in his country for Federation Works by the age of 15. He moved on to one of the country's more notable clubs in Owerri's Iwuanyanwu Nationale in 1992 and caught the eye as he helped Nigeria win the World Under-17 Championship in Japan in 1993.

Dutch giants Ajax moved swiftly to sign him and he was soon drafted into their first team. He scored 25 goals in three seasons in Amsterdam and tasted Champions League glory in 1995. His value soared the following summer as he helped Nigeria to Olympic victory in Atlanta after which Ajax cashed in, selling him to Inter Milan for GBP3.5 million. He returned from Atlanta to a hero's welcome and at the age of 20 was one of the world's most highly-rated talents. His performances earned him the African Footballer of the Year award.

Yet, his life was soon turned upside down as a routine medical revealed a potentially fatal weakness in his heart. He underwent major surgery and as a result his Inter career never took off, the club instead turning to Brazilian superstar Ronaldo and ultimately selling Kanu for GBP4.5 million in 1999. He had made only 12 appearances for Inter.

Arsenal gave him the chance to revive his career and he grasped the opportunity. He soon became a star at Highbury and acquired a reputation for scoring extravagant and important goals. In time Thierry Henry's emergence marginalised him, but on the whole he enjoyed five highly productive years with the Gunners, scoring 44 goals.

He scored 17 goals in his first full season including an astonishing hat-trick against Chelsea. His strikes were often spectacular and his performances led to him being named African Footballer of the Year for the second time.

That 1999-2000 campaign proved by far his best season for the Gunners but he helped the club to the double in 2002 and another Premier League title two years later.

He was snapped up on a free transfer by promoted West Brom that summer and played a key role as the Baggies, despite appearing doomed at one stage, avoided immediate relegation from the top flight.

The club did suffer the drop in 2006 but there were some highlights for Kanu, such as scoring in a 2-1 win over his former club Arsenal.

Following relegation, Kanu chose not to remain at The Hawthorns and moved to another Premier League club in Portsmouth, again on a free transfer. He has been one of the team's star players and is their top-scorer in a season when Pompey have turned last year's brush with relegation into a push for Europe.

On the international front Kanu has played in two World Cups, in 1998 and 2002. He played an inspirational role as slow-starting Nigeria made a late qualifying charge towards the 2006 tournament but they were ultimately pipped by Angola.

Kanu appeared to have the world at his feet after the 1996 Olympic Games but the discovery of a serious problem with his aortic valve radically changed his life's priorities. He underwent open heart surgery in the United States in November 1996 and did not return to his club until April 1997.

Since then he has become actively involved in charity work, founding the Kanu Heart Foundation in 2000 with the aim of alleviating heart disease among children in Africa. The charity has built five specialist hospitals and dozens of clinics throughout the continent.

FACTFILE

Name: Nwankwo Kanu Position: Striker Club: Portsmouth Date of birth: August 1, 1976 Nigeria caps: 62 Nigeria goals: 11 Nigeria debut: v Sweden, May 1994 Moment to remember Two matches stand out in Kanu's career. The first was the 1996 Olympics semifinal when he memorably scored two late goals as Nigeria came from behind to beat Brazil 3-2. Kanu forced extra-time with a last-minute equaliser and then won the match with a golden goal. The second was his hat-trick against Chelsea in the rain in 1999. Arsenal had trailed 2-0 but Kanu then took charge of a fiercely competitive match with goals in the 75th, 83rd and 90th minutes. His winner was a stunning curling effort from the byline wide on the left. Moment to forget For all his flicks and tricks, Kanu can be guilty of the odd howler. In 2004 he committed the miss of the season, somehow scooping the ball over the crossbar from a yard as West Brom sought a late equaliser against Middlesbrough.

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