Kanu turns his mind to passionate affair of the heart

National service call proves a test of loyalties just as club life is finally settled
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The Independent Football

Nwankwo Kanu is a big man with a big heart, now functioning perfectly after the scare that might have ended his career, but torn this week between genuine love for his club and country.

Having embarked on possibly his most consistent run since joining Arsenal from Internazionale exactly three years ago, the Nigerian striker must leave London after this afternoon's Premiership match against Liverpool to join a biennial quest for the African Nations' Cup that means so much to his country of birth.

Had he helped deliver the trophy to a passionate capacity crowd of 40,000 in Lagos two years ago, there might not have been quite such a feeling of unfinished business. Instead, he failed to score throughout the tournament, then missed a penalty in the shoot-out that decided it, as Cameroon edged out the co-hosts. Meanwhile, in his absence, Arsenal lost more ground and more games in the chase for the Premiership title – including a home defeat by Liverpool – and went out of the FA Cup.

Once again, like his club-mate Lauren, fellow-countrymen Finidi George of Ipswich and Celestine Babayaro of Chelsea, and Charlton's South African captain Shaun Bartlett, he must now leave League and Cup fortunes in other hands for a month, as well as run the risk that replacement hands may grasp the opportunity all too well.

"When you say the European Championship, everybody in Europe wants to play, and it's the same with all African players and the Nations' Cup," he said on Friday, as Hertfordshire fog provided stark contrast to the intense heat awaiting in Mali. "If you say you are not coming to play for your country, you have big, big problems, so you want to go. Then the player has problems with the club and when you come back, you find you're not in the same position as before and have to struggle again from the beginning."

Kanu's specific concern is that by the middle of February, the injury-prone Francis Jeffers, signed from Everton for a small fortune last summer but yet to make a mark, will have seized his chance – and the Nigerian's place – just in time for the resumption of Champions' League football.

His consolation should be Arsène Wenger's renewed confidence in him, reflected in five successive starting appearances recently, mostly ahead of the gifted Dennis Bergkamp. The last four of those games have ended in victories, starting with the resounding 2-1 success at Anfield with 10 men before Christmas, in which Kanu was withdrawn into midfield and, according to his manager, "did fantastically".

For the 6ft 5in man with the size 11 boots, famed for his dextrous footwork, that Sunday afternoon summed up much of what Arsenal are about, and offers better omens for today's game than last season's FA Cup final: "For me it was the best game Arsenal ever had. Playing against a big club at the top of the table who have qualities and good players and you are playing 10 men against 11. But still you come home with the three points. We had the spirit and determination to come back and it was marvellous. This Arsenal don't give up, they keep on going to the final whistle."

And to the final game, he hopes, of this unpredictable campaign, in which his club have not yet, for once, allowed Manchester United too big a lead: "The championship is open for maybe five clubs. The way it's going is nice because there's a lot of competition."

So too with his fellow strikers, now that Jeffers is almost fit again. For a while after that signing, it looked as if Kanu would be the odd man out of five forwards, yet he insists that he never contemplated leaving and that he is equally happy to play alongside any of the other four. Despite never having received Home Office permission to bring his family over to live in London with him, he appears a happier man than the one once depicted in a television documentary on foreign players as clattering around his empty Barnet mansion, occasionally driving into London just for something to do.

Like Wenger he loves the passion of the Premiership and the loyalty of (most) supporters and after his unsettled period in Serie A (when a faulty heart valve was diagnosed) he might even agree with the Arsenal manager that the English game is "paradise for a football player".

From looking inward, he has turned his thoughts outwards to the Kanu Foundation that raises money to send African children to Europe and Israel for urgent operations and will eventually build five hospitals in his homeland. Divided loyalties or not, his country needs him; and Kanu is in good heart.

The Kanu Nwankwo Heart Foundation, 39 Kay Road, London SW9 9DF. Tel: 020 7924 0709