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Thursday, December 7, 2023

Rashidi Yekini: ‘One Of Africa’s Best Players Ever To Walk This Earth’

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Rashidi Yekini was well into his 31st year when Nigeria arrived at the 1994 World Cup, but his career was at its zenith. He was the reigning African Footballer of the Year, had been top scorer and player of the tournament when Nigeria won the African Cup of Nations just two months earlier, and with eight in seven games had scored nearly half his nation’s total tally of goals in qualifying for their first ever World Cup. He had also been the top goalscorer in Portugal that season, the first Vitória Setubal player to win the Bola de Prata for half a century, and his personal life was just as successful, with his marriage set for later that summer.

In their first match, against Bulgaria on 21 June, Yekini shone, scoring once and creating another in a 3-0 win. After sweeping in a low cross from the future Ipswich Town winger Finidi George his momentum carried him into the goal, where he stayed to celebrate, his arms pushed through the net, lost in the moment. It became one of the most memorable images of the tournament.

“Yekini was a man of himself. A man who knew what he wanted and what he wanted to do for his country. He was always ready to risk everything for the team and country. As a footballer we at times get carried away by our emotion or passion and that was what happened when he scored that goal,” Thompson Oliha, who roomed with Yekini in America, toldsupersport.com. “I think he was saying something like ‘It is me! It is me!’ Yes it was a goal with a touch of a team work but the man just celebrated the best way he thought.”

Yekini had forced his way from an apprenticeship as a mechanic in Kaduna to the pinnacle of the professional game, a tall, broad force of nature and spirit. “He was a legend,” says Abiola Kazeem, a Nigerian football journalist. “We totally relied on him to get goals. We called him The Goalfather, because we knew he would always get goals. He didn’t hog the limelight off the pitch, but on the pitch he was an absolutely reliable player for Nigeria.”

After the Bulgaria game, Clemens Westerhof, the Nigerians’ Dutch coach, was asked for his opinion of Yekini’s excellent performance. “We have not yet seen the real Rashidi Yekini,” he said. “It’s coming.”

It was not. He did not score again that summer. Sunday Oliseh, another team-mate, said that he “had some beef” with some of his team-mates, who “were madly, sickly, mentally jealous” of his success, which had already brought a £100,000-a-month contract at Olympiakos.

But in every sense Yekini’s honeymoon did not last: the move to Greece ended in acrimony, with the player swiftly falling out with coaches and team-mates before being dropped for good in October, and the marriage did not even last that long, with the couple returning from honeymoon seperately.

Seeking to raise his profile and attract a new club, he played a friendly for Nigeria against England at Wembley that November and sustained a knee injury that kept him out of the game for six months. After a year and just four starts in Greece he moved to Sporting Gijón, where he scored just three times – two-thirds of them in a single memorable victory over Fabio Capello’s Real Madrid – and on loan back in Setúbal were similarly unsuccessful, before a brief return to form at FC Zurich saw him return to the national side for the 1998 World Cup, where he appeared only fleetingly. Afterwards he returned to Africa, and eventually, aged 39, he drifted back to Nigeria.

“He was one of the highest-profile Nigerian players to return to the local leagues,” says Kazeem. “When he came back it was huge for the league. Crowds turned up everywhere he played. He’s still the benchmark for any Nigerian striker. Anyone coming through is compared to him, not just in terms of goals scored but also his attributes. We have had good strikers since, but not in his class.

“But when he retired, he withdrew. Most of the other big players who come back, they move into coaching, or they get involved in administration, in marketing. He became totally withdrawn. He didn’t grant interviews, he didn’t speak to anyone. He wanted nothing to do not just with football, or society at large – even his family. Because of the profile he had, he could have been anything he wanted. If he wanted to manage a football club, he’d just have to choose one and the red carpet would be rolled out to welcome him. It’s a mystery what happened to him, he withdrew completely from society.”

Yekini lived in and owned a large, gated development in Oluyole-Ibadan. One by one he evicted his tenants until only he was left. Much of his money was given away, or lent to his few friends. He continued to train alone at the nearby Awolowo Stadium, but when offered a chance to return to the game in 2010, when the Nigerian FA approached him over an ambassadorial role, he refused. “Money is never my first consideration,” he once said. “It’s a great joy being back home so thinking about money is nothing. I value happiness more than money. Money can’t buy you peace of mind.”

In time the state of Yekini’s mental, physical and financial health became a topic of national debate. Then in April 2012 he was taken from his house and transported to a remote hospital. Neighbours reported seeing the player bound and bloodied as he was forcibly removed from his home; some described it as a kidnapping, others as an intervention by those most concerned about his wellbeing. It is an event still surrounded in mystery, but what is certain is that within two weeks Yekini was dead.

“Rashidi Yekini is definitely one of the best African players and legends to ever walk this earth,” Oliseh wrote on his blog. “Rashidi was full of pace, had a superb shot, could jump very high, was calm in front of goal and was a very loveable person once you got to know and understand him. We lost not only a brother, friend, human being, legend and compatriot, but we also lost a great opportunity to find out his unique secret of how to score goals easily like he did which only he knew how to.”

This Saturday marks the 20th anniversary of the moment Yekini marked his own and his nation’s arrival at the World Cup with a fine goal and an unforgettable celebration. His blossoming may have been brief, but it was certainly brilliant.


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