Arsenal legend Kanu on his heart foundation, the Invincibles and Unai Emery

No-one at Inter Milan doubted the health of 20-year-old powerhouse forward Nwankwo Kanu when he signed for the club in the summer of 1996. He had scored 25 goals in 54 games for Ajax, won the Champions League a summer earlier and was about to captain Nigeria to Olympic gold.
It perhaps seemed natural to waive his signing through without a medical. When Kanu eventually returned from Atlanta for his examinations he was told an ineffective aortic valve would likely end his football career.
That he went on to play for another 15 years was remarkable but it pails into insignificance compared to the 542 lives the Kanu Heart Foundation has saved since it was set up in Nigeria in 2000.
Kanu returns to London next month for a charity match to raise the money to provide life-saving treatment for another 200 youngsters in Nigeria, as well as to build a new cardiac centre in Abuja that will mean the charity no longer has to fly children and their families to India and the United Kingdom for life-saving operations.
Kanu tells Standard Sport: “When they have these heart issues these kids don’t smile, don’t play, they are quiet. After the operation they fly.
“One of them could be the next Kanu, or even the president of the country, if we can help them. It’s not about football. It’s about saving lives.
“Imagine going around the world to India for a heart operation. If the child doesn’t have family or money it’ll be so difficult.
“Believe me, I know what it’s like to have heart problems. You can have an ankle or shoulder injury and in six or eight months you’re healed. But if the heart stops for a few moments that’s it.
“To come in and try to help means so much to me. I’ve won a lot of trophies but saving lives…”
Kanu won’t be on his own at the Hive on September 30, with a host of familiar faces certain to warm the hearts of Arsenal fans lining up alongside the 42-year-old.
Robert Pires, Sol Campbell and Lauren’s presence offers a mini-Invincibles reunion, a chance for them to reminisce on the days when Arsenal were the scourge of English football.
“If you look at the team from when I came in you had players like Mr Arsenal Tony Adams, you have top, top captains, a mixture of young and old,” Kanu says. “The older ones were there for us in the sense that even if you wanted to slack they’d just hit you in the head and say ‘hey, come on. We have to win’.
“We believed that we couldn’t lose anything. That we’re too good. There was a lot of competition.
“When you talk about the Invincibles, they are people with big hearts. People who want it. Even the coach, sometimes when we went to the game he was not bothered because he knew we were going to win.”
For all the undeniable talent of Mesut Ozil, Aaron Ramsey and Alexandre Lacazette the silverware carousel is notably less populated than in the five and a half seasons Kanu was in north London.
What was holding the current crop back under Arsene Wenger? “It’s tough, really tough.
“If you look at that team yeah they’re good, they can play football. But what we had then they haven’t got.
“You have to have leaders all over the pitch. You had Vieira, Adams, Campbell, even Pires. Everybody in that team was up for it.
“We had leaders. We had captains. If you look at this team now they’re good but you don’t see those characters.”
Between 1999 and 2004 Kanu won two Premier League titles, the latter that famous golden trophy after Arsenal went through an entire season undefeated, and two FA Cups.
He may never have been the star of the team – indeed he spent much of his career battling the likes of Dennis Bergkamp, Sylvain Wiltord and Francis Jeffers for a starting berth alongside Thierry Henry – but his charming demeanour and impudence on the pitch, characterised by the ludicrous 15 minute hat-trick at Stamford Bridge, means he will always be a beloved figure in north London.
The 13th greatest player in Arsenal history (according to a club poll) was given a hero’s welcome last time he took the field in front of Gooners, his treble in a 4-2 win over Milan Glorie in 2016 leading to warm chants of “Wenger sign him up!”
“They still remember what we have done,” he says. “They enjoyed the good football, good spirit, hard work and achievements.
“Whenever they see the legends they appreciate them. We’re still going, we didn’t slack! That’s the spirit of our Arsenal team.”
A spirit that Unai Emery might be able to restore, Kanu believes. “His track record is good. If you look at him in PSG he made some positive signings and they won trophies.
“You can see in his signings at Arsenal he knows his game and he knows how he’ll want the team to play. I can tell you defensively we’re going to be stronger.
“Arsenal is a team that even if they score two or three, people believe that at the end of the day they might lose or draw. They have to learn to seal off games so that the opposition can’t come back when they’re one or two-nil up.
“That’s what he’ll bring in. The defence will be tight and the strikers will win you games.”
If Emery can guarantee that then Kanu and his team-mates status as the last Arsenal squad to win the Premier League may just be at an end.

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