African football was spreading through the world stage fast when I turned professional. Today, African players can be found at almost every top club in Europe, and the national teams make fierce competition for the likes of Brazil and Italy.
The popularity of the African Nations has blown up, as big name stars like Yaya Toure and Didier Drogba have grown huge support from fans all around the world. And with young players like Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang tearing up the Bundesliga and Champions League, it’s no wonder scouts are always looking at the next generation of African talent.
Watching Nigeria win the Under 17 World Cup doesn’t come as a surprise either. African teams have closed the tactical gap that once existed, consistently delivering great performances.
Taking things back a few years to when I was 17 years old, I arrived at training one today and was told a new African trialist would be joining us at the Ajax youth academy. The tradition at Ajax is that you, as a new player, have to show your skill to not only impresses the coaches, but also the players who are already part of the academy.
This would sometimes frighten young academy players because they would be worried that they might be dropped at the end of the season if the new guy was better.
As I was having lunch with my teammates before training one day, a group of older players stormed into the lunch room and started making jokes about the African trialist. They were saying things like, “He’s so tall he should play basketball,” and, “He’s gonna be so drunk from all the nutmegs that he’ll want to go back to his warm weather in Africa.”
Training starts and we warm up, but the new kid doesn’t understand a word the coach is saying. It’s an ice cold day, and he’s just standing there on his own. Eventually though, we start playing football, and we all gaze over to the new kid to see if he’s any good.
He picks up the ball, dribbles round two players, nutmegs the captain, drops the goalie with a fake shot, and slots the ball into an empty net. There were four teams playing on that field, and every one of us stopped and looked at him – which we were told we should never do in training.
The next day there was a friendly, and at lunch the loudmouths from the day before were silent as this trialist walked in to grab his food. He went to eat alone but the coach called him and made him eat with the team. He walked over, and still very quiet, finished his lunch.
Two days later we were told the team won 2-0 and the new kid scored both goals – one in the top corner and the other a solo effort that left everyones mouth open, again.
Not long after that, Nwankwo Kanu made his debut for Ajax. And believe me, the fans loved him.
My next meeting with Kanu was at Stamford Bridge as Chelsea faced Arsenal, three years after seeing him win the 1999 Olympics with Nigeria. I was injured with a broken foot so I was watching the game from a stadium box.
Arsenal were losing 2-0, but Kanu single handedly turned the game around with a hat-trick. If anyone remembers that game, you’ll know his 3rd was out of this world. He did his famous fake shot leaving Ed de Goey on the floor, finishing from a tight angle.
Even I, as a Chelsea player, was speechless. My first time watching a live Premier League game at Stamford Bridge ended in defeat at the hands of an old colleague.