May 4, 2016 marks four years since the passing away of Super Eagles most prolific goal scorer Rashidi Yekini who died in West Africa’s largest city Ibadan in 2012.
Some of his teammates including former Bolton Wanderers skipper Jay-Jay Okacha, Garba Lawal and Ajax forward Tijani Babangida remember the 1993 CAF African footballer of the year and the legacy he left.
‘He knew his onions and was always on hand to inspire the teams with his goals.’
Yekini was born on October 3, 1963 in the former northern region capital Kaduna to Yoruba parents and like most players fell in love with football at an early age, showcasing his skills with different amateur teams before he was snapped up professionally by United Nigeria Textile Limited (UNTL), a top flight team, in 1981.
A year before his death in 2011, media reports started going haywire about the star suffering from bipolar disorder and depression. He had retired six years earlier and had gone into a very quiet life; months later he was dead.
‘He knew his onions and was always on hand to inspire the teams with his goals. I remember on so many occasions when we needed a goal or two and Yekini most times makes sure it happens, defenders always had a hard time playing against him,’ Okocha said.
Yekini was discovered by the amateur coach Sani Shuaibu before going on to ply his trade with 12 other clubs starting with Ivory Coast’s Africa Sports National in a career that spanned over two decades.
Former Dutch Eredevisie side Roda JC player Garba Lawal who played alongside Yekini at the FIFA 1998 World Cup in France had common ground with the striker. ‘We were discovered by the same coach (Shuaibu) though he discovered Yekini first before me and Tijjani Babangida, that link with UNTL and Kaduna was one of the basis of our relationship whenever we were with the national team.’ .
‘Everyone knew he was quiet but due to our relationship he’ll invite me to his hotel room and we’ll end up chatting for hours during the France 1998 Mundial,’ Lawal added.
‘When Yekini scored that famous first goal against Bulgaria, I still remember the tight hug and joy all around our household.’
But for most Nigerians, it was the USA 94 event (Nigeria’s first ever World Cup) and not ‘France 98’ that brings back everlasting memories of the departed star.
Abuja-based trader Saliu Danjuma was 16 at the time and remembers waking up at 2.00 am to watch Eagles first game against a Hristo Stoichkov-led Bulgarian national team in 1994. Danjuma recalled Eagles famous 4-0 thrashing of the East Europeans.
‘I had school the following day and my dad kept insisting that I go to bed but the urge of wanting to be among the people that watched Nigeria’s first ever world cup game was too strong and when Yekini scored that famous first goal against Bulgaria, I still remember the tight hug and joy all around our household, everybody refused to go to bed in anticipation of the history making match and we were glad we did.’
Without doubt 93-94 were Yekini’s best years considering he was named CAF African player of the year in 1993 and also led Nigeria to a long-awaited African Cup of Nations in Tunisia 1994 (14 year wait after Algeria 80) where he also emerged the tournament’s highest goal scorer.
Portuguese side Vitória Setubal was Yekini’s most important club where he scored 90 goals in 108 appearances for the team between 1990 – 1994 and won the Bola De Prata (Portuguese top flight highest goal scorer honour). He was the first player from the club in 50 years to achieve the feat.
His love affair with Setubal continued even after he left in 1994 with the player making a comeback for the 1997/1998 staying for a year. After his death in 2012 the Portuguese side honoured him with a minute’s silence against Benfica with both set of players wearing black armbands to commemorate Yekini. They also promised to make contributions to the player’s charity foundation.
A lot is still shrouded in mystery with media reports at the time citing mental illness and financial frustrations as reason.
His picture was carried by the club chairman and Yekini’s daughter Yemisi Yekini round the stadium accompanied by a standing ovation from the team’s faithful who were aware of his legendary status at their club.
His former teammate Tijani Babangida portrayed the most emotions among all my respondents when asked to recall his moments with Yekini.
‘He’s more than a teammate to me, I saw him as a brother, even before I joined the national team, we knew each other from UNTL where he was one of the senior players and I was just coming through the ranks, he was always there to guide me and tell me things to do or avoid,’ Tijjani said in an emotionally-laden voice.
While the TV sports reporter Kayode Tijjani – who was the closest journalist to the star – said he’s still urging the authorities to revisit issues surrounding the player’s death. A lot is still shrouded in mystery with media reports at the time citing mental illness and financial frustrations as reason.
‘He was massively into charity, especially to widows and others, yet they claim he was broke.’
‘Rashidi (Yekini) can’t be insane because he insists he does not want to grant interviews or socialise, how can that be a crime? Not only did Nigeria fail Yekini by not probing his death, we in the media failed with the wrong stories that he was broke and insane.
‘He was massively into charity, especially to widows and others, yet they claim he was broke. Terrible, it’s a monumental disgrace that his death hasn’t been investigated. A legend who gave his all to the country. Sad.’
In response to Tijjani’s (Kayode) views Lawal countered him saying he doesn’t believe there was foul play in the death and his soul should be allowed to rest in peace.
‘It’s absolute rubbish, there’s nothing to investigate as far as I’m concerned, I don’t think there’s any foul play. What happened has happened let just continue to pray for his soul to rest in peace while we enjoy the beautiful legacies he left behind.’
Over the years great strikers like Kanu Nwankwo, Obafemi Martins and Yakubu Aiyegbeni have all played the Yekini role (number 9) with the Super Eagles but none was able to catch up with him in terms of goals scored. Neither could they leave a lasting impression on the minds of Nigerian football fans like Yekini did during his lifetime.