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Nwankwo Kanu: My Arsenal success opened doors for African players

Former Arsenal striker Nwankwo Kanu says that his success with the Gunners helped blaze a trail for African players to come to the Premier League.

Kanu signed with Arsenal exactly 17 years ago -- Feb. 17, 1999 -- at a time when the African influence on English football was nearly non-existent. The former Nigeria captain went on to help Arsenal win two league titles and two FA Cups, scoring 44 goals along the way, and said his five-year stint in North London also helped raise the profile of the Premier League in Africa.

"I believe I was the first [African] person who came to England and who did very well," Kanu told the Arsenal website. "After that the doors were opened for African talents so, with Arsenal behind me and what we did with Arsenal, everybody now tends to follow the English league, and wants players to come and play in the English league."

Kanu is still a fan favourite at the Emirates and is perhaps best remembered for his late hat trick against Chelsea when Arsenal came from 2-0 down to win 3-2 at Stamford Bridge in 1999. The last goal came deep into injury time, and Kanu remembers that even he was stunned after netting the winner from an almost impossible angle.

"Everybody believed it was over, even me," Kanu said. "I was like, OK 2-2 is enough for us because we were two down. That's enough, then we can go eat. We share the points."

Instead, Kanu chased down a failed clearance, rounded outrushing goalkeeper Ed De Goey and fired a shot over the head of two defenders into the far corner of the net.

"It was difficult because where I got the ball, it was really tight from that angle," Kanu said. "And I saw some of our players coming, waiting for me to give them the ball. But in my mind, I know that we don't really have enough time, so I have to do to what I have to do from that angle. Which means you have to pick your target and then shoot, and that's what I did."

Nwankwo Kanu
Kanu won the Best Player in Africa award in 1999.

Kanu also credited Arsene Wenger with helping turn his career around after he needed surgery for a heart defect, which derailed a three-year stint at Inter Milan.

"When I came over I saw a good coach who saw the best in me. I was a good player because he made it easier for me to play," Kanu said. "Everybody believes that English football is all about playing the ball up, not keeping it on the ground, but Arsene has his own idea of football and it made it easier for us.

"He wanted us to play football the right way, he wanted us to enjoy it by passing the ball around and that's what we did."

Mattias is ESPN FC's Arsenal correspondent. Follow him @MattiasKaren.

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