Remembering the tragic story of Rashidi Yekini

This for some of you who are regular visitors of this blog may be surprised by this first memory sporting flashback but the celebration of the powerful Nigerian striker Rashidi Yekini scoring against Bulgaria at USA ’94 was a truly iconic moment for me personally as a young kid.

Yekini’s emotional celebration at USA ’94

This was the game which announced the Nigeria (Super Eagles) onto the world stage. Their pace, power and slick first touch around the pitch caught the eye immediately and Nigeria suddenly became my second favorite team in the tournament. Their style of play was so easy on the eye.

At the start of USA ’94, I was on holiday with my family as a young lad in Limassol, Cyprus. Given that there was a price war on the local cruise ships, the family jumped at the chance to go on an unexpected cruise to Egypt and Israel.

It was a memorable holiday and the fact that USA ’94 was live on the cruise ship with a virtually all Greek crew was interesting to say the least. None more so when Greece crashed to an early heavy 4-0 loss to Argentina in the opening round of the fixture.

Diego Maradona’s celebration to the camera kind of gave the game away on his metabolic makeup. The Greek cruise ship crew were disgusted by the Greek team performance and the management / players of the Greek national soccer team would have walked the plank that night.

I digress though. The other two teams in group D were Nigeria and Bulgaria and that performance from Nigeria on the opening fixture was phenomenal. The composure on the ball from the back, the midfield creativity of Okocha, George, the defensive midfield masterclass of Sunday Oliseh, the leadership of Stephen Keshi. It was a joy to watch.

To think that Bulgaria went to the last four of the competition said everything as to the quality performance that Nigeria delivered on that night in Dallas.

The missing piece of this 4-5-1 formation was the front man and that man was Rashidi Yekini. He was a powerful man, his physique meant that he was able to hold the ball up so well and allowed his midfield a platform into the game.

His pace and power to run down the channels caused defensive opposition in massive trouble and created space for the likes of George to exploit. He had a super footwork for a big guy and his aerial ability was excellent. The complete definition of how a lone striker should operate.

The opening goal for Nigeria was so poignant. After so many near misses to get to the World Cup finals, the goal from Yekini was a marquee moment not just for the team but also for county of Nigeria. The goal was a superbly well worked move. The intricate passing, the ability to identify space behind the Bulgarian defensive cover, the final pass into Yekini. Sensational.

Super Eagles announce themselves on the World Stage

The tournament continued on an upward curve for Nigeria with additional wins over a now Diego Maradona less Argentina and then a route win over Greece. The last sixteen encounter with Italy was cruel in how the game unfolded.

Nigeria led deservedly early, had their chances to extend the lead and were made to pay as Roberto Baggio grabbed a late equalizer and then the dreaded the golden goal went in Italy’s favor as Baggio slotted home a penalty. Nigeria after all the highlight group stage performances were out. A devastating end.

As players like Oliseh, George, Amokachi received the plaudits and lucrative big contracts and club moves, Rashidi Yekini looked to be going in the same direction with a 100k a week move to Olympiakos from Setubal in Portugal where his 91 goals in 114 appearances sparked the interest of many top European team suitors.

On the outside, it looked a good move for both parties. Olympiakos eager to identify a marquee number nine to catapult their side to further domestic success and propel the side to European success. It never materialized as Yekini quickly fell out with the manager and squad.

He was viewed as a divisive player in the dressing room and a hastily arranged loan move to Sporting Gijon materialized but again game time was sparse, the only highlight was a few goals scored against Real Madrid in the 95-96 season.

It was a classic example of a player who was destined for the highest club accolades was now descending into the abyss. A brief return to Setubal in South Portugal followed but the spark, the drive, the goal scoring prowess was absent. USA ’94 and the months preceding it a distant memory.

Yekini though was revered in his native land and he was one of the few active Super Eagles who returned to play soccer in Nigeria after short spells in Switzerland, Tunisia and Saudi Arabia. The superstar striker was now a journey man. Julius Berger and Gateway clubs in Nigeria saw bumper home attendances due to the arrival of Yekini.

His stock value and memories of USA ’94 still as strong but for me, it was a sad end to a player who should have made it to a top club side in Spain, Portugal, Italy or England.

The lesson to be learned is that a footballer’s career is precious, the people around a football player need to have the best interests of their player to the core. Yekini supported those around him and his community back in Nigeria. It is a shame that his representatives did not do the same in kind. The man was crumbling inside his powerful frame.

The end for Yekini was as tragic as his footballing career. The mental battles were becoming too much for the man and reports of his ill health started to emerge in 2011.

His death is shrouded in mystery, the events leading up to his passing were tragic — vulnerable, alone, bouts of depression and bipolar. His forcibly removal to a hospital from his compound the last chapter of a player who soared to greatness but descended to ruin. Rashidi Yekini passed away on 4 May 2012 at the age of just 48.

In these times of uncertainty, the Yekini story should heighten our awareness of those around us. The need to support each other at times of anxiety or trouble, the need to remain compassionate and open to others who may want to open up on their plight. In these times, these core values need to be highlighted once more.

USA. World Cup 1994. Nigeria. Super Eagles. Rashidi Yekini. Leading all time Nigeria soccer team top goalscorer. Gone but not forgotten by this blogger. RIP.

Rashidi Yekini doing what he did best, scoring goals

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