The following interview with Nigerian legend and captain of the national team Nwanko Kanu was conducted by African football magazine New African Soccer and reprinted here with their permission. The magazine is free to download.
Nigeria went into the Beijing Olympics football tournament confident that they will do well. They were confident that they will return with gold to emulate the exploits of their seniors in the 1996 edition in Atlanta. They were labelled the Dream Team IV.
The rest is now history. Nigeria flew the flag of Africa along with Cameroon and Cote d’Ivoire.
Africa put in an impressive showing — presenting three of the final eight, and Nigeria outlasted the others, getting to the finals and losing narrowly to Argentina.
Captain of the Nigerian team that actually won gold in 1996 Nwankwo Kanu shares his views with us especially on the future of the game in his country, with this impressive showing.
New African Soccer: Your record still remains intact, Kanu. You are still the only captain to have won gold for Nigeria.
Kanu: That doesn’t even come to mind. I don’t mind my record equalled. In fact, I wanted it more than anything. I wanted Nigeria to win gold. We had the team that could have done it. I am proud of them and what they achieved. It is a pity that they won silver. I think we have proved to the world that 1996 was no fluke.
NAS: What did the team do that they should not have done? What cost them gold?
Kanu: Luck. They worked hard enough. They did very little wrong. They are humans so of course in the course of the tournament, there were mistakes here and there. But their mistakes definitely did not outweigh their good points, which was why the never lost a game going into the finals. No, I don’t think they could have tried any harder. They just needed that little bit of luck.
NAS: Chinedu Ogbuke was not in the final, and he has proved the talisman of the Nigerian team leading up to the finals…
Kanu: Every member of the squad was a talisman in his own right. They all played well, and yes, I agree that Chinedu was good, he had a great tournament, but so did many others. I am sure they coped well without him and if God has said we’d win gold, we would have, even without him. I have worked well with Chinedu the few times he was drafted into the senior squad and I like him. He works hard and he is a naturally gifted star but many others in the team were as well.
NAS: Would you say Ogbuke was your revelation of the Nigerian team in the tournament? Which player stood out for you?
Kanu: I am not trying to be diplomatic or anything here, believe me. I speak from my heart when I say they all did well. Ogbuke was good at what he did, and executed it well. I liked that. But who didn’t? Osaze (Odemwigie) was very good, and Obinna (Nsofor) played with purpose. In fact, if it hadn’t been for work permit issues, Obinna would be a Premier League player by now as Everton wanted to sign him. On the back of his performance, he was recruited by none other than Jose Mourinho to Inter Milan. He must have seen something in him. What can I say about the team? They were all superb. Dare I mention Kaita who marshaled the midfield so well that he’d give senior team officials sleepless nights as to which player to pick in the holding midfield position? Or the back four that comprised of ball stoppers in the centre and the wing backs of Okonkwo and Adefemi. They were all superb. In fact it gave us lots to ponder as to where we can fit all these boys in at the senior level.
NAS: I was just about to ask that, because, after Under-23 level, the next stage for most of these players is to graduate into the senior national team. But of course, players like yourself are still there so such graduation can not be automatic.
Kanu: Experience is also needed. They have had the right exposure but they need more big time experience. There is room for most of these boys to join the fold. What with the busy club schedules, one particular group of players can not be playing all Nigeria games. It is nice to know that we have more than enough players to fill the void. And even where everyone is fit, the competition is good. For me, I love it. It makes us all, myself included, conscious of the fact that our starting shirts in the national team are not secure, as we have to fight for it. And we love that. You can see that even me, despite being captain, have started quite a few matches with Nigeria from the bench of late. You need to see us in camp. It is a big happy family and we rally round the ones picked to play. This is part of what we want to impart on to the younger ones.
NAS: What about Samson Siasia…
Kanu: Phenomenal. He has proved himself once again. He’s done a good job with the Under-23 team. I think it was the best thing Nigeria had done in a long time — seeing how well Siasia handled the Under-20 crop in Holland, where once again, they got to the finals of the Under-20 World Cup, losing yet again to Argentina, and allowing him to continue working with the same set of players at Under-23 level. Now we can see what continuity can do. By now, the players know Siasia and look up to him, and he sees them all as his kid brothers.
NAS: So if we are talking about continuity, why can’t Siasia take this same crop of players and start coaching the senior team?
Kanu: There is no doubt that Siasia will do a good job for the Super Eagles. He has worked in the system before, as assistant to Austin Eguavoen. I have worked with him for years. He is a good man, a good coach and yes, he will be successful, but of course we know that the Super Eagles has a coach already. Shuaib Amodu is working and doing well too. We have played matches and are yet unbeaten under him. Do you change a winning team? I know Siasia very well. I am sure he is a down to earth person and I know that when his time comes, he will make a great manager for the Super Eagles, but for now, there is no point rocking the boat.
NAS: And you? People are starting to talk about the Siasia/Kanu partnership as managers of the future Super Eagles.
Kanu: People always say things, and it is funny that the only ones who hear these “people” are journalists (laughs). Why do people make such speculations? The reality on ground is fact. Any other thing is mere speculation. I am still a player. I play my football for Portsmouth FC and I am the captain of the Super Eagles. Samson is the coach of Nigeria’s Under-23 squad. Unless something to the contrary is announced, he is still the Under-23 coach. His job will be to nurture the current crop of Under-20s and build them up for Under-23 level. That is fact. That is reality. Any other thing is speculation.
NAS: Obviously with this display from the Under-23 team, we are right to be looking at the future of Nigerian football and saying there must be a chance that you guys would do well in the 2010 World Cup. How confident are you?
Kanu: Nigeria will always be Nigeria. We have over 140 million people. We are a football crazy nation and we have millions of footballers. We have that many people looking up to us to do well, and that is one of the main reasons we put in our best anytime we are wearing the green and white kit of the Super Eagles. Yes, we also hope to do well in 2010 and beyond. Our Under-17 team last year, our Under-23s in Beijing; they have all proved that the talent in Nigeria is not dried up. We have a good chance and we will do well. You can see that we have picked ourselves up from a dismal African Cup of Nations and are riding high with maximum points in our World Cup qualifying group. We foresee no problems in qualifying. We have to make sure we do things right: the admin, the nutrition, the medical aspect, other little things that can affect team performance. We will get there. When we get to South Africa for the World Cup, we can then proceed to focus on winning the competition.
NAS: You think you can?
Kanu: Why not? There will be 32 teams taking part. Believe me, all 32 will want to win. We have to approach these things with self-belief, and if we can win tournaments in age-group levels, and get to the finals in major global championships, we can push the best in the World Cup. But don’t let us get so carried away just yet. There is a job to be done — a job of qualifying for the World Cup and we need to do that first.
NAS: And will you still be around, as a player, in 2010?
Kanu: Only God knows the future, but I still want to be playing by 2010 and beyond. It will be a dream come true for me to play for Nigeria in an African World Cup — the first of its kind.
NAS: Digressing a little bit, we want to ask you about your club career. Many thought you’d be moving on from Portsmouth after your exploits of last season. They offered you a year’s contract and you accepted.
Kanu: Yes, I did. I love the club. The fans make me feel good. It was hard for me to turn my back on them. I could have quit on a high last season, especially after my goals in the semi-finals and the final of the FA Cup gave Pompey the Cup. But that is if I thought, for one minute, that it could be the pinnacle of my time here. I foresee many more ups and I want to be a part of it. We are playing in Europe this season. That is a high for Pompey fans. And I want to play a part in Portsmouth’s first UEFA Cup campaign in so many years.
NAS: But the arrival of Peter Crouch and Defoe surely puts your position as a striker under threat, especially as Harry Redknapp is so keen on using them as a partnership up front.
Kanu: I said to you earlier that I love competition. The gaffer (manager) has assured me that the arrival of Crouch and Defoe doesn’t undermine my importance to the club. I believe him. They are two good players but we have over 60 games to play this season. The most important thing is to work well in training and anytime I am called upon, for me to do my thing and give joy to Portsmouth fans and to restore the faith that the management have in me when they offered me a contract extension.
NAS: This time last season, Portsmouth was regarded as the Africa United of the English Premier League, with you and many other players here. Today it is a shadow of its old self. With Muntari gone and you and Utaka relegated to bench status, as well as Lauren, is that suggesting a change in Portsmouth’s outlook of African players, despite you guys having contributed immensely to the team’s success of last season?
Kanu: I don’t regard the situation as ‘relegation’ as you put it. Muntari left because Inter offered a lot of money for him. Don’t forget that Portsmouth FC, like many other teams in this country, is first and foremost, a business. They bought a player a year ago for a sum, and only 12 months later, got offered almost twice what they paid for him. Why would they hold on to such a player? As for John, Lauren and myself, there is no relegation. We are part of the first team. We are still in the early stages of the season. The manager is trying various different patterns, and we happen to be starting from the bench for now. That is not a problem. It is no indication of how unimportant we are. I am sure the manager will disagree with you. It is a long season — a long journey that has only just started. We should hang fire and see what happens.
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