On Wednesday, August 24, Bernie and I made our way to The Midtown, a pub in Toronto that acts as headquarters for the Toronto branch of Arsenal Canada. Given his support for Manchester United, Bernie would probably have felt the slight senses of nausea and embarrassment at any other time. Fortunately, as a Nigerian, on this night he had the perfect excuse. Meeting Nwankwo Kanu.
If you grew up watching the Eredivisie, Seria A or the Premier League – or for that matter Nigeria – you might have been lucky enough to watch Kanu play. The man was a truly unique footballer. At times it seems as though he played the game at walking pace, rarely beating defenders with speed or power but with pure artistry, deception and close control. Like his compatriot Jay Jay Okocha, Kanu was a magician and so it was with relish that we jumped at the chance to meet the man who had cast spells on us as children.
The former Arsenal man was in town on his way to Alliston, Ontario, where the Kanu Soccer Academy has been holding an International Soccer Camp throughout August. The event was slated to start at 7pm, but Bernie warned everyone he could that Kanu would be operating “on Nigerian time”, and to expect a delay.
Sure enough, it was around 8.40pm when Kanu shuffled in to great applause from the waiting crowd. After a brief introduction in which Kanu was applauded a couple of more times for his existence/presence, an informal Q&A session began. Here are some of the highlights:
What was it like being in a squad with players from all over the world?
Kanu: “That’s life, I have friends from all over the world and I learn from them. It’s the same thing in football…I have teammates from so many countries, I learned from them as well. For example my style of football is different from Ray Parlour’s style of football which is different from Thierry’s style of football. We have the coach to put everyone to together to play his own style. When things are difficult, the style matters and you sometimes try to do something different.”
Did you have friendly competition in training to see who was the most skillful and who (except for yourself) was the most skillful?
Kanu: “It’s always good to have competition and to have good players around you, it makes you better. It can also be difficult because if you have so many good players, sometimes you don’t play, sometimes you do play.”
“When we train we always do our best to perform the way Arsene wants. But of course the players have eyes and we try to see what we can all do. Although we don’t wake up trying to show whose the best. When the game gets going, it’s what you do then that counts.”
Despite the lack of infrastructure and organization, how fun must it have been to play with Jay Jay Okocha?
“He’s a magician, it’s good to play with players like that. He was gifted and in Nigeria we had many gifted players. Not just in Nigeria in other African countries as well. Even with all these gifted players in Africa, we haven’t yet won the world cup so there must be something missing (infrastructure and organization). If we put those things together then the football will come out brighter and we can win the World Cup.”
On the current Arsenal team:
“If you look at the team you see a lot of youth which is not bad, it’s good, but you have to mix it up. We know things have changed and everyone is going to the market. People are spending money, adding to their squads and making sure they have for every position at least two players who are not just good but very, very good so that if you have injuries and a lot of games you have guys who can pick up from there. Sometimes in life you have to take risks and buy. I’m an Arsenal fan now and I want us to win trophies, the more we can spend the more we can get quality players which will help us out.”
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