NWANKWO KANU, the 20-year-old Nigerian and Inter Milan forward and Olympic gold medallist, has been told that he will probably never play again because of a heart condition.
A heart problem was spotted last week during an examination conducted by doctors in Milan, where Kanu was due to make his Serie A debut for Inter this Sunday.
Bruno Caru, one of the three cardiologists who carried out the tests, told an Italian news agency that the problem - an overloaded left ventricle caused by an ineffective aortic valve - was serious enough to end Kanu's career, since athletic effort would accelerate the condition.
Inter Milan team doctor Piero Volpi said: "The diagnosis is pitiless and has been confirmed by specialists. What we can't understand is how no one discovered it before we did. It's simply amazing, because we're talking about a player who a month ago was playing in the Olympics.
Kanu, who signed from Ajax in July for about £1.3 million and turned 20 on August 1st, was devastated by the news. "I knew nothing about it," he said. "In all these years, nobody had said anything about it. What can I do now?"
Volpi said the Nigerian would need an operation to treat the condition. "In this sporting drama, the only consolation I have as a doctor is to have discovered the illness, enabling the lad to be cured," he said.
Club president Massimo Moratti, who bought the player from Ajax, said Inter would fully support the player, who has a three-year contract, and refused to give up hope that Kanu may one day play again.
"The Kanu affair is incredible, and on a human level id highly distressing," said Moratti in Rome. "We will remain close to our player and give him all the help he needs.
"We will give him every opportunity to work for us off the pitch.
Indeed, Inter may take legal proceedings against Ajax. Explaining why he found the case incredible, Moratti said: "I've been told that any doctor who gave him a simple electro-cardiogram would immediately have realised that something wasn't right with Kanu's heart.
"Which obviously means that Ajax had never given him one. It's incredible that such a thing could happen in the super-professional world of football today. Kanu has run a lot of risks."
Caru, a heart specialist acting as an adviser to Inter, said: "The illness certainly dates back some considerable time. I categorically exclude any idea that Kanu was healthy three months ago. He's been ill for years."
Ajax have gone on the defensive. Club treasurer Arie Van Os, who handles transfer dealings, said: "We're surprised. Our checks on his physical condition have always been normal, as have those of the insurance companies who insure the players."
Kanu came to Ajax's attention in October 1993, when the tall striker helped Nigeria win the world Under-17 championship. The Dutch snapped him up from Iwuanyanwu and gave him his first division debut five months later. He won the Dutch league title twice with Ajax and the European Cup in 1995.
Inter said yesterday that Kanu would undergo further examinations by heart specialists today and tomorrow.