Friday, 31 July 2015

Kanu: Capturing the genius of the butterfly

On this day in 1996, one of the greats of Nigerian football announced himself to the world with a performance of consummate perfection

It is impossible to recount the legend of Nwankwo Kanu without reference to the 1996 Olympics. More specifically, that semi-final against Brazil in Georgia. On this day 19 years ago, the long-limbed native of Owerri left a giant print in world football, a day before his 20th birthday.
With the score at 3-2 in favour of the South Americans and time ebbing away, Nigeria won a throw-in deep in Brazilian territory.
To say “the rest was history” is insulting to the purity of Kanu’s art, a blight in a field of cotton. The rest was more than just history—history is imprisoned by the past and often embellished or diluted, altered by the bias, negative or positive, of the medium by which it is propagated. What Kanu did was not history; it was impossible to improve upon and impossible to detract from. It is timeless, ageless, the truest magic; not of sleight but of stardust.
Jay-Jay Okocha, that arch-entertainer, picked the ball up, his back against the advertising hoarding, moist from the exertions of a gruelling 90 minutes. Having contrived to miss a penalty earlier in the game, this was more than a final throw of the dice. It was a chance at redemption.
There is nothing more agricultural than the long throw. There is no design to it, save to heave in the general direction of the six-yard box and hope for the best. Odd then that a player of Okocha’s sophistication would wield such a crude tool, and that so effectively; two years later, he would similarly play a part in another memorable strike, that time from Sunday Oliseh.
This, however, was Kanu-time.
Making of a Legend | Kanu's magical artistry was unmatched
In came the booming projectile, and it sailed over the head of a straining Wilson Oruma. As a symbolism, it was sardonically apt. Oruma and Kanu had lit up the U-17 World Championship in 1993, but the former would spend his playing days perpetually in Okocha’s shadow, straining vainly to touch the elusive brilliance of Jay-Jay.
As it turned out, the jump did enough to put off Ze Elias, and almost disconcerted Teslim Fatusi behind, who did not anticipate the miss. Still, football lives in the margins, and is tolerant toward imperfection—had Oruma won the header, the move would have broken down.
Instead, Fatusi managed to right himself and, with a touch like Velcro, kill the ball in a crowded penalty area. This was however one of those times when the control was too good; having done the hard part, he made a complete hash of his next two touches, failing to dig it out from under his feet in time.
In the end, he barely toe-poked in the vague direction of the goal. Still there was enough purchase to get it through to Kanu, who up until that point had busied himself obscuring Dida’s view. This would ultimately prove pivotal.
As the ball rolled to Kanu, he flicked the ball up slightly to his left with his right foot. His position, shielding Dida from the play with his massive frame, panicked the Brazil goalkeeper. Rather than stay on his feet and observe, he elected to lunge at the ball, seeking to cut it off at source. It proved the wrong decision; Kanu swivelled elegantly and fired into the net as Dida went down.
A moment that famous Brazilian commentator Bueno Galvao's words etched into that country's football history with the words, “ Olha o Kanu, ele é perigoso, entrou, bateu, acabou ” - Look at Kanu, he's dangerous, he's got the ball, he shoots, it's over!
It was done in a flash, watch it and you might only blink once. Yet in that instant, ‘Papilo’- the butterly - tottered out of his cocoon and spread his dainty wings. It took little more than five minutes of play to affirm the metamorphosis, as he took out the Brazilians early in extra-time. It would become a ubiquitous theme in his career—the ability to deliver emphasis with a sigh.
In a career that spanned 16 years at senior international level, there were moments of rapture aplenty; none more typical than in Nigeria’s opening game at the 2000 Afcon against Tunisia. Every touch divine, every flick precise, Kanu’s lanky frame carried him into the ether in Lagos, and he breathed an air so rarefied and godly that it was impossible to live with him. He laid on three assists in a 4-2 victory, and none was more sublime than his back-heeled flick on the edge of the area for Victor Ikpeba to finish.
Shoulder high | Kanu was the hero of Nigeria's 1996 Olympic Games victory
It was a perfect display of what Papilo had become. Never the paciest, his game grew increasingly cerebral, and by 2000 he was the perfect no. 10, dropping off the front line to pick up the ball and prompt play. Yet, for all his balletic brilliance, that game against Tunisia also showcased starkly the one blot on a gleaming career: he never did manage a goal for Nigeria in a senior international tournament.
Tijani Babangida’s delightful cross saw Kanu stoop and head over from just inside the six-yard box, with the score at 4-1. He hit the turf and stayed there, sent hurling back down to the earth like a bolt of thunder from heaven.
Perhaps we judge him too harshly on that record; there is, after all, only so long a mortal can glimpse the divine before the strain breaks the physical body. Kanu’s greatness was that he was able to visit that realm, and to do it with such frequency.
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