Nigerian Football Ambassador Nwankwo Kanu speaks exclusively to SAB OSUJI of Scorenigeria.com.ng on fellow Gunners Alex Iwobi’s goal against Zambia, his career and children playing Academy football in Europe.
The 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games soccer gold medalist also spoke on a wide range of issues including the last qualifying match against Algeria, his most trying time in life, back ground and more.
This is a first part of a full interview with the Nigeria football legend:
SCORENIGERIA: What was the feeling the moment Alex Iwobi scored the goal against Chipolopolo of Zambia that eventually sealed Nigeria’s place in the Russia 2018 World Cup at the Godswill Akpabio Stadium in Uyo?
KANU: It was a great moment. It was a special moment and I was delighted. Every Nigerian, whether you were at the stadium or not, was really happy. Being an Ambassador of Nigeria Football, I can say I was even happier than every other person because the team that I’m the Ambassador of have just qualified to be at the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
The moment the goal came, I knew the Super Eagles have landed in Russia. The worst thing that could have happened to us would have bèen the Super Eagles not qualifying for the World Cup.
If we don’t qualify, all of us – the Legends, the Ambassador, ex internationals, stakeholders, name them, whoever, whatever – it means that we haven’t done our jobs.
So, now that we have qualified, it means we have done our jobs, so that’s the key point people really have to understand. Against Cameroon, I said we were going to win. It’s all about believing.
In terms of playing football and talents, every country in the world, not only in Africa, are afraid of Nigeria because they don’t know where we are coming from or what we’re going to do. But we have to know who we are.
When we wear green-white-green, it means a lot; we’re no pushovers, we are giants of Africa in terms of football. And it stands like that until at the point we start not believing and others start taking us for a ride.
But for me, I try to hold high that belief, I try to motivate the players, I try to show them that yes, whoever is wearing the green-white-green is great. If you are in there, then know it that yes, every part of the world is afraid of us. For them to come out against us they have to be scared, we have to push that (fear) into them.
You know people often say ‘during the glorious days’, but we can still make the young ones understand who we are. And when they know who we are, they can do great things there on the pitch.
In 1993, we needed that 1-1 draw against Algeria in Algiers in that final qualifier to go to USA ’94 World Cup. Now, even with a game to spare, incidentally against the same Algeria, Super Eagles have already sealed a place in the 2018 World Cup.
Tell me, what do you think should be going on in the minds of the Super Eagles players going into the inconsequential game against Algeria?
The job has been done against Cameroon. That was where we stood up and pushed the boys, encouraged them and above all, the coaches did a very good job and the players also responded. All Nigerians were happy.
They went to Cameroon and got a draw, of course, the Eagles were cruising to a win before the Cameroonians got a penalty and equalised.
Then against Zambia, we thought it was going to be easy. If you had looked at everybody’s face, the impression was like, okay we defeated Cameroon silly, so why can’t Zambia be whitewashed. The fans were equally predicting like 3-0 and all that.
But that’s football, you don’t just add one plus one and get two. It’s not that way.
But all the same, like you asked me, everybody was panicking, tensed up and all that because we wanted them (the Eagles) to score the first goal earlier but it didn’t come. But they kept going until that moment when the substitution was effected and it brought the needed bite in the Super Eagles because that was what was needed in that second half.
We needed to bring in someone who can really influence and change the game. And then, there came (Alex) Iwobi and if you see his touches when he came in they were different and I’m very happy for him. He scored the goal.
When the goal came, I knew it was all over, that we were home and dry because there wasn’t going to be any coming back for the Zambians. At that point, I knew that the next possible scenario would be Super Eagles scoring a second goal.
If I were the coach of the Zambian national team, honestly I would be very proud of the team because the Chipolopolo gave a very good account of themselves.
But we are Nigerians, we have to win and we have to be in the World Cup.
So, for the last match in Algeria, we are already in Russia and if you have qualified already going into the last game, the coach should use the last game to take a look at some other players to see if he could get any other good player he could draft to the squad going to the World Cup.
But it doesn’t mean he must have to drop the entire team as presently constituted because we have to go there and make sure we got something from the game, but like I said, that is a game that should be used to check out other players.
Papilo, tell me, what did you tell Alex Iwobi after the match when you met him after his strike took the entire 170 millions Nigerians to Russia 2018 World Cup finals?
You know after the match, Nigerians were jubilating, within the stadium, on the streets, at homes, restaurants, viewing centers, drink joints and even overseas. I was jubilant too.
I went into the players’ bus when they were about to depart and they received me very, very well, apparently knowing I’ve been in contact with most of them. I have been calling in, through phone calls, whatsaap and all that because I have all their phone numbers.
I have been encouraging them, trying to push them to know that in this business of playing football, World Cup is a special stage to play and every good player aspires to be there.
And after the game when I went to the team’s bus, they started jumping up, singing, celebrating with me and of course, I had to celebrate with them, showing the love. It is not everybody that comes into that bus that they will accept and celebrate with that way. But they really did for me, from the coaches, the players and I said thank you for showing that love to me in return.
But when I went to Iwobi, I said to him, ‘well done Alex, you don’t know what you have done for the country today, but it is not now, it’s later that you will understand that this goal you scored today means a whole lot.
‘We all love football and one thing is that you cannot mess around with Nigerians with football. So, for you to have come and scored that goal, it is now record books of history now but you are still a young guy and you won’t really understand it now, but later you will’.
But few hours later, Arsenal Football Club, Iwobi’s club in London, congratulated Iwobi and even wrote on their website for scoring the goal that sent Nigeria to the 2018 World Cup, saying he has represented them. What are your thoughts on that?
As a player, an ex-player for that matter, I feel happy about it in that they are following his progress especially knowing Nigeria is a big country in terms of football. And for them, it is also good because there is no way a player in such club could be on national assignment and they won’t monitor how he is faring. So they did what they are supposed to do.
But all the same, remember it is not only Iwobi that is the Arsenal player representing his national team. So they have to congratulate Nigeria national team and then Iwobi. But as an Arsenal player, for me they did what they are supposed to do.
It is not every player that has the opportunity of playing at the World Cup. But in your own case, you featured for Nigeria at three World Cups – 1998, 2002 and 2010 – before you called it a day. How does it feel featuring at the highest level of world football?
World Cup is the biggest stage you can think of in football. As a player, it is a dream for one to be there.
For me it was a special moment. If you look at our players the moment Iwobi scored the goal, even in the next two weeks, he would still be ecstatic. This is because that is what you worked for.
And if such dream comes true, that is the biggest platform, the whole world is watching you, you are coming out to represent Nigeria and Africa; you have to showcase what you’ve got; if you are skillful.
Remember, it is not every player who is good does make it to the World Cup. So, if you eventually make it to the World Cup, thank your God, count yourself as being successful, lucky and accomplished.
It is not easy, and it doesn’t come easy. It comes every four years and when you do that you really have achieved something significantly remarkable in your football career.
You featured in all categories of the FIFA World Cups, U17, U20, U23 and senior national team. You were named as a FIFA Legend as well as UN Ambassador. Tell me, when you look back, what picture does Nwankwo Kanu see of his football career?
A whole lot of pictures come into my mind. Not only the World Cup memories. Every footballer, wherever you are, after the game, you sit back and look back. And if you do look back and see the trophies, medals, the achievements and the heights you have reached, you measure yourself as to how successful you were as a player.
That is why if you get to FIFA record today, my name, Nwankwo Kanu, is written there in big, bold letters as FIFA Legend, somebody FIFA can call on phone any time, any day.
When I played my Testimonial Match, FIFA sent their Secretary General to represent them, they gave me a gold medal, saying that ‘this is for your own contribution to football in the world’. They did not say for my contribution for football in Nigeria or Africa but the world.
And he brought that gold and when I touched it, I was like, wao! That shows where you are in the world in terms of football, so I thank God for that.
By Sab Osuji