From a humble beginning as a football star in Holy Ghost College, Owerri, Imo State, to the local league where he played for Iwuanyanwu Nationale Football Club of Owerri, to Japan 1993. He came into prominence after featuring at the FIFA Under-17 World Cup in 1993, where he got the attention of many European clubs. By the age of 20, he had already won an Olympic gold medal with Nigeria and the Champions League with Ajax, where he also won three successive Dutch titles.
In the summer of 1996, Kanu Nwankwo, described as a cat with nine lives, joined Inter Milan, but after the deal had gone through, a routine medical revealed a faulty aortic valve in his heart. It was as if his career was almost over before it began. “It was a huge shock,” he said. “I was supposed to play for Inter one minute. The next, the doctor in Italy was saying it was over for me. But I was young, I really wanted to play football and I knew that I could again.” Some experts decreed that he will never play football again. Some even said he will die if he touches football again. But he fired back, “I told them I was not finished yet. No one could tell what the future has in wait for me; I believe I can influence my future. And I am always ready to fight for what I believe in.”
He was told not only that he would never play football again, but that he had to undergo immediate open-heart surgery in America. The four-and-half hours surgery gave him a second chance. Incredibly, 14 months after having the surgery, he was playing again. When he was passed fit to return, Inter, in February 1999, were only too happy to receive an approach from Arsene Wenger for ₤4.2 million. During his stay at Highbury, Kanu picked up two FA Cup-winning medals and was involved in two Premiership title triumphs.
Described as a man who has seen the good, the bad and the ugly sides of life in his playing career, even the critics are surprised when the chips are down. Though they have on several occasions written him off, each time he comes back proving them wrong. In his words, “You don’t write yourself off because others said so. I will continue playing football and scoring. People express surprise in my scoring abilities recently, but they forget that when God gives the ability, he expects you to make use of it to make Him and other people happy. So, that is what I am doing.”
He said what happened to him then was a blessing in disguise. After surviving the career-threatening heart surgery, he decided to set up the Kanu Heart Foundation. The Foundation was to help others who are going through the same kind of problem, but do not have funds to get them corrected. That heart problem, which led to setting up the Kanu Heart Foundation, has become the secret of his success as the children he has so far helped, continue to pray for him daily. According to him, “The prayers those kids make for me is what keeps me going because they are eager to see you succeed, so that others in similar conditions like them could benefit. Looking back now, I want to believe that my situation back in 1996 was a blessing in disguise. God has used me as a tool and I have no regrets.”
Kanu Nwankwo who has had four Nations Cup appearances commented on setting up the Foundation: “After the miracle God performed for me, it touched my heart that there could be many other less privileged people passing through the same problems, but have no funds to go through surgery. I decided to set up the Kanu Heart Foundation to cater for those who find themselves in the same predicament.”
Actually, the original plan was to build hospitals in Nigeria and other parts of Africa for treatment of heart patients. But being a big project, it will require intensive capital. At the same time, waiting could prove to be very dangerous as some of the patients might give up the ghost before the completion of the hospitals. So, they decided to take them outside the country for the surgery. The first set of two kids had their surgery in England, which was very expensive, given the fact that the kids’ parents had to be flown alongside. It will take about ₤15, 000 to operate on one person. That’s huge money considering the number of people that need the surgery.
In an effort to treat more kids with the little resources available, they decided to make a change from England and took the patients to Israel where some others underwent successful surgery. To bring this service to more kids, they finally decided on India, where it is even cheaper and with good doctors. With more than 250 persons operated upon so far, there are still thousands on the waiting list. To raise funds, they organize charity matches, hold dinners and do charity works. Kanu, apart from providing finance, had to involve his friends like Thierry Henry and many others to play for the Foundation to raise money. For instance, a charity match between Friends of Kanu XI and a Portsmouth XI at Fratton Park was basically to raise money for the Foundation. Part of the fundraising programme was also a Black Tie Dinner and Gala Event at the Port Solent Marriot Hotel where the football stars and guests were entertained by the TV comic, Gina Yashere. The night included an auction of football memorabilias and signed items. The main purpose of the event was to raise awareness and funds for the Kanu Heart Foundation. Individuals and organizations are signing up to make their own contributions. For instance, Kanu received a donation of about USD1600 from the Nigerian Football Fans Forum, CyberEagles. Such donations are welcome. You, my dear reader, can also make a contribution; you never can tell how far it will go in helping to give a second chance to a soul out there. The Foundation which was set up in 2000 and has its head office in London, with branches in Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, Uganda and Botswana, has concluded plans to collaborate with the Ugandan Heart Institute to help needy children who have heart problems.
Kanu who is a two time African Footballer of the Year winner and who actually had his brightest moments in football at Ajax of Amsterdam before moving to Inter Milan is not new to charity. He had at one time pledged to foot the bill for international friendly matches to prepare the Super Eagles ahead of the Nations Cup. All these contributed to UNICEF appointing him Goodwill Ambassador. When Kanu started his Foundation, many saw it as one of those white elephant projects. That has come to be a human nature. We all want change, but are we ready to embrace that change when it comes? This is the main context of my 27th book, How To Reject Rejection, published in 2004 by Benson and Edwards. The truth is that nothing good comes easy. A little study about Kanu’s life will show that the young man has gone through several rejections. That he has got this far is because of his faith in God and strong determination to succeed. Doctors and experts said he is finished with playing football. Inter Milan; Arsenal and West Brom, all are clubs he once played for at one point in time. They rejected him. Even Nigerians called him tired legs. Yet Kanu has always proved that he can do that which he knows how to do best, bringing to mind what Zig Ziglar said years ago that, “To get through the hardest journey, we need take only one step at a time, but we must keep on stepping.” You see, dear reader; life will not always give you all that you want on a platter of gold. We must all have that fighting spirit. If not, we will make due with whatever life gives to us.
One of the ways to counter the rejections that will surely come your way is to believe in yourself. You must have that self confidence that you can deliver. It was Abraham Lincoln that said, “The probability that we may fail in the struggle ought not to deter us from the support of a cause we believe to be just.” And how do you acquire this confidence? By adequate preparation, by getting all the knowledge you need. By acquiring all the education you need. By asking intelligent questions. By having and learning from mentors. Aspire to be the best in whatever field you find yourself. You need to be bold and courageous.
Have strong faith in God. Every talent comes from God. When I hear such statements like “I’m self-made,” I feel sorry for such people. But for Him, we can do nothing. It then means we must keep our head low and use whatever talent He has given us to bless humanity.
Another lesson is that we must be willing to give. The topic of giving is so huge that several volumes of book will be devoted to it before one can be able to get a good grip on it. But at the same time, it could be best described by just telling you to just give. Each time the topic is mentioned, what comes to mind is money. Yes, money is important and plays a major role in our day to day activities, but there are other ways we can give without giving money. It could be our time, talent or any other thing that is not physical cash. For instance, all the stars that have featured in the charity matches organized by Kanu Heart Foundation did not give cash, but their appearances turned out to be huge sums of money, considering the money their fans paid to watch the matches. Whatever you do, learn to give back to the society. It’s all about making sacrifices.
Every one of us has the opportunity to make a difference within our community. That is what the Nigerian Project is all about. Making a difference in the society with whatever is in our hands, wherever we are. There is no excuse not to make it in Nigeria. Others have done it, more are doing it and still many more will do it. Stand up to be counted.
I believe in this great country of ours. I believe that I will be the person God has designed me to be, in a country full of possibilities. I’m intoxicated seeing the opportunities all around us. You can make it here. God has given you all it takes to make it and add value to others. Don’t deny the world the abundant blessings within you. Make it happen.
NB: First published November 2015