Everyone loves Nwankwo Kanu, though not in the way they love Ronaldo, Messi or Robben and their relentless brilliance. Instead, Kanu is frail and fallible. He inspires that fond, warm affection that modern footballers rarely do.
Such adoration is understandable. Claiming to be 35, but widely believed to not be a day under 41, Kanu is a genuinely unique player.
Kanu has carved out a career by looking like he’s about to fall over, before beating his man with a ludicrous piece of skill. He often does fall over, incidentally, but that merely adds to his charm. He is slow, ungainly, lanky; but with vision and awareness like few others. And in a sport where players now boast staggering fitness levels and often identikit physiques, Kanu’s defining features make him all the more endearing.
David James, his ex-teammate at Portsmouth put it best in a recent Guardian column.
‘Kanu never trained. He never even walked up a flight of stairs. We only had one flight of stairs at Portsmouth’s training ground, but Kanu would always wait for the lift. He was practically incapacitated, but on the field he could do amazing things. One match, he came on, ran three-quarters of the length of the pitch, scored – and then travelled home in a wheelchair.’
Kanu is referred to as simply ‘King’ in Nigeria (this is, to a degree self-styled: his website is kingkanu.com and he wears baseball caps plastered with the moniker). But anecdotes like this belittle his career, which has been magnificent. He has won a Champions League medal, a UEFA Cup medal, three FA Cup winners’ medals and two African Player of the Year awards, among others. Most recently, he became a hero at Portsmouth, winning the club the FA Cup in 2008 with the only goal in the final. They call him King at Fratton Park too.
Or at least they did. Kanu hasn’t played since October, despite returning to first-team training this month following a back injury. In March, coach Michael Appleton explained why he wouldn’t be selecting Kanu for the rest of the season. “I can’t afford to start playing players who I don’t think will get through 45 minutes,” he said.
Kanu signed a three-year deal in August 2010 with a view to taking up a coaching role at the end of it. But with forced redundancies of existing coaching staff within the club, that option is no longer available. Kanu did emerge with credit at the time of the deal: while he was entitled to a 12-month extension at wages of around £40,000, it was negotiated to spread the cost over three years. Yet by those calculations, Kanu is still receiving around £13,000 per week. To do nothing.
The player is, of course, legally entitled to his contract. He has a year left to run, with no playing revenue likely to follow. Take the money, use the lift, sit on the bench, retire. However, Portsmouth probably have less than a year to run too. With parachute payments due to stop in May, and the administrator Trevor Birch failing so far to find a buyer, the club needs to completely strip down its wage bill. And Kanu is one of the highest-paid players at the club, despite never playing. He has reportedly been asked to take early retirement by the club, but has so far refused.
Could Kanu’s refusal to slink off into retirement with a carriage clock and a (dwindling) degree of gratitude from Portsmouth fans represent the nadir in relations between any club, its players and fans? Presumably not. Players on far-more-exorbitant wages have committed worse acts of treachery (Tevez’s golf sabbatical – though his wages were suspended), mercenariness (Rooney in his Man United contract negotiations) or sheer greed (Ashley Cole and his horror at a £55,000-a-week wage).
Kanu’s case though, contains a perfect storm of factors that make it so unpalatable.
Firstly, rarely has a club needed to trim excesses so much. Most acts of player greed take place at clubs that can – or think they can – afford the salaries. Portsmouth certainly can’t anymore, despite being a byword for financial excess when they signed Kanu. Now they could be two months away from liquidation. In February they laid off 33 members of staff. They owe money to numerous local businesses including ambulance services and schools.
Compare this desperate need to cut costs with the return on investment from one of their highest earners: Kanu has started just three Championship games this season. It is feasible he will never play competitively again.
Then consider the history between the player and the club’s fans. Kanu was revered as a cult Pompey hero, having won the FA Cup and scoring against AC Milan in a 2-2 draw in 2008. This status usually prompts reciprocal love from a player; a degree of sensitivity to the club and its fans’ plight.
Most importantly, Kanu has made a lot of money from football. A 16-year career at some of the better-paying clubs in world football guarantees that. Unless he’s spent all his money on stair lifts, he should have plenty left.
The final denouement though, is that Kanu is widely, and rightly considered a decent man. This had made his refusal to leave all the more saddening. Most players’ greed can be attributed to a muddy mixture of insularity borne from a lifetime in football and bad advice from advisors looking for commission. Not Kanu, who has greater perspective than many. A man who suffered life-threatening heart problems in 1996, he has given back to charity through his Kanu Heart Foundation that supports children with weak hearts. He is also a UNICEF ambassador.
Perhaps his determination to eke out the final drops of his salary are because of, not despite, his hard-won sense of perspective. Maybe Kanu has weighed up the needs of Portsmouth’s local creditors against those of African children with weak hearts and understandably come out on the side of the children.
We can only guess (he’s certainly not saying). And Kanu shouldn’t be demonised – he has a family, bills to pay and one year left on his contract. Yet Portsmouth fans could be forgiven for feeling that their club is being bled dry – literally to the point of extinction – by a man who won them the cup and now cannot finish a game of football.
Football tends to remember its players in shorthand, using one or two enduring moments. Until very recently, Kanu could be guaranteed that his showreel would be an astonishing second-half hat-trick for Arsenal at Stamford Bridge in 1999, or his backheeled goal at Middlesbrough in the same year.
It still should be. Yet there’s a chance that instead, it might be that of a smiling middle-aged man wearing a ‘King’ baseball cap, waiting for the lift, as the training ground doors are locked up for the last time.
Thomas Young writes for football365.com