It could be said to be the most memorable of Kanu’s performances at Arsenal, not just for its sheer beauty but for the grandness of the occasion – it was against Chelsea
In 1999, Kanu Nwankwo had done what many footballers had never done in the past and would still find it difficult to do in the future.
The lanky Nigerian had joined Arsenal as a relatively unknown player to the Gunners faithful, despite his Olympics heroics in Atlanta. He had also won the African Player of the Year at the time but little was known about him in London.
His unveiling was one of the least elaborate in Arsenal’s modern history. He had also won the UEFA Champions League with Ajax but had to face a heart surgery which put his career under the radar for some time.
Arsene Wenger took a chance on the former Inter Milan forward and fans thanked him for the brilliance and shrewdness of the business he conducted.
In an analysis of the 50 best performances by Nigerians in the Premier League era, The Athletic which had ranked Okocha’s performance against Tottenham in November 2003 at 47th has now listed Kanu’s comeback hat trick against Chelsea 30th in the rankings.
“Kanu’s place in it all was interesting. He was a regular starter during the season, even if throughout his Arsenal career he fluctuated between the major role and specialist act of impact substitute. Wenger loved the flexibility, the fact Kanu had the ingenuity and skill to fill Bergkamp’s No 10 role, and the hold-up play and cleverness around goal to bring in others or finish himself, reminiscent of the No 9 responsibility a player like Alan Smith used to such great effect,” The Athletic’s Amy Lawrence wrote.
“On October 23rd, 1999, Arsenal faced a trip to Chelsea, which was ill-timed as it was the filling in a very intense Champions League sandwich. Home games either side, against Barcelona and Fiorentina, loomed large in the consciousness and Wenger picked his team accordingly. This was a trial campaign in that Arsenal hired Wembley Stadium for their European matches, an experiment that seemed to pile on the pressure as they were not quite at home, and their opponents tended to arrive extra inspired.”
What followed all that chaotic period was a performance that’s remembered by Nigerians as one of the greatest of any African in the league. In it was also a goal that is one of the best seen by any player in the Premier League era.
Arsenal fans also remember that performance for the beauty of its memory and importance, and Kanu for being the man behind such brilliance.