He could have retired, he could even be dead. But Nwankwo Kanu's career has been resumed, as Osasu Obayiuwana explains

With the flurry of media hype surrounding the transfer of Ronaldo from Barcelona to Internazionale, you might have assumed that the Brazilian would be holding court on Sunday 27th July on his first appearance at the San Siro in a friendly against Manchester United. But the Milanese fans reserved their loudest applause for the 80th minute emergence of Nwanko Kanu, who had overcome supposedly insurmountable odds to resume his playing career.

After the discovery of a congenital heart defect last year while undergoing a medical, the career of the 20-year-old forward, who had just led Nigeria to victory in the 1996 Olympics, was said to be effectively over. Few, including Inter’s team doctor Piero Volpi, gave him any chance of recovery: “The diagnosis is merciless but that is the situation. It is amazing that nobody discovered the problem before now,” he said at the time.

Ajax, Kanu’s former club, who sold the striker to Inter for £2 million, had been accused by Massimo Moratti, Inter’s president, of selling them a player they knew to be medically unfit. Protests were lodged with FIFA, demanding that Ajax pay punitive damages for deception, but football’s chieftains ruled that Inter should have conducted their own series of medical tests before agreeing to buy Kanu.

“Electrocardiagram tests have never been part of of the routine medical exams that we conduct with our players, so how have we witheld information we do not have?” asks Ajax’s spokesman David Endt. “We have always acted in good faith towards Kanu and Inter. In actual fact, we offered him a new contract but he made up his mind that it was time to go. Inter’s accusations had no basis,” he argues.

Determined to prove the Italian medical experts wrong, Kanu went to doctors in London and the United States for a second opinion. Contrary to the view of European experts that Kanu stood the risk of dropping dead on the pitch if he ever played competitive football again, cardiologists at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio believed that corrective surgery, which repairs the damaged aortic valve rather than replacing it, would give the player a new lease of life. With the involvement of Dr Michael Debakey, whose clients include Boris Yeltsin, surgery was successfully performed last November.

During Kanu’s stay in hospital, the Nigerian government gave Kanu a cash gift of £50,000 to defray his medical expenses and ordered Nigerian FA officials to ensure that no expense was spared in returning the player to good health. “It was dismaying to see the media and even doctors write off the career of such a promising talent,” said Taribo West, a Nigerian colleague who recently left French side Auxerre to join Kanu at Inter. “But I and my colleagues in the national team had always hoped that his positive mental attitude and the quality of doctors surrounding him in the States would be able to take care of this problem. It was a moment of joy for me as he entered the pitch to resume his career.”

Kanu’s return was especially good news for Nigeria, the first country to qualify for next year’s World Cup Finals. With his spectacular performance in the nerve-wracking Olympic semi-final against Brazil (when he scored the first ever ‘golden goal’ in a major global tournament) still fresh in the memory, Kanu will be excepted to play a vital role in ensuring that a team from Africa has a fighting chance of winning the World Cup for the first time. His recovery will also provoke memories of a tragedy that struck a Nigerian international of an earlier, though recent, generation. Sam Okwaraji died of a heart attack on the pitch during a World Cup qualifier against Angola in August 1989. Okwaraji’s wholly preventable death stemmed from a heart condition not spotted even after left Nigeria for Belgian club, Antwerp. It seems that medical science has moved on a lot in seven years.

From WSC 127 September 1997. What was happening this month

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