On Friday night, Rashidi Yekini passed away at the age of 48 after long-term illness. Yekini was arguably the greatest to come out of Africa in the 1990s and certainly the greatest Nigerian striker of all-time. Here, Salim looks at his career, particularly what made the Nigerian hulk so memorable in the minds of world football enthusiasts.
“Salim, I think I just saw Rashidi Yekini working in this hospital,” my father told me on what would become his death bed. “He was cleaning around my bed, we had a little chat.” Rashidi Yekini working as a cleaner? In a hospital in Romford? A fall from grace was possible, but the situation didn’t register. If Yekini was working in a hospital in Romford, I’d like to think I was addicted enough to football to have known. As it turned out, it wasn’t Yekini but a mixture of medicines had rendered my father to have a slight bout of senility.
Yet, the situation arguably also portrayed the extent to which the player had been implanted in his mind. After all, my father had little reason to remember Yekini. He remembered his elite footballers well but he wasn’t one to remember those who weren’t truly elite, particularly those who had stopped being in the limelight for more than a decade. He enjoyed watching football with me but if Manchester United were playing at Old Trafford he wouldn’t have been able to confirm whether they were playing at home or not – and the same goes for any of the other clubs, he wasn’t adept at identifying scenery or atmosphere it seemed (much to my frustration).
The point is, my father wasn’t one for football memories but during this bout of senility Yekini still remained implanted on his mind. But why Yekini? He could have said Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo or a current footballer, Yekini was completely out of the blue. I had no answer to the question, I just shrugged and carried on with my day-to-day life. I only gave the question a comprehensive thought three years later, or a few weeks ago, when researching Yekini for the 60 Greatest African Players list on this humble site. As I researched into the core of the man, the jigsaw puzzles started to fit and everything become clearer as to why he was so memorable.
Born in the northern Nigerian city of Kaduna and thus nicknamed “The Bull of Kaduna” for his massive physique and the way he bulldozed through opposition defences. A fearsome, mean look was planted on Yekini’s face for the entirety of his career. Yekini was not one for showboating or flashy stuff; he collected his goals in an insatiable, remorseless manner of a man who had the whole world against him.
In 1982, Yekini began his career with the Shooting Stars coached by national coach Festus Onigbinde who had spotted him playing for UNTL Kaduna, an obscure third division team. In 1984, he would break into the national team and participated in the Africa Cup of Nations in the Ivory Coast where he stood out as a promising player. The Abiola Babes then recruited him and he finished as top scorer in the Nigerian top flight. Ivorian giants Africa Sports was the next step and he would also finish as the top scorer there.
Yekini’s reputation soon reached beyond Africa and he would put pen to paper on a five-year-deal with Portuguese Liga side Vitoria Setubal. What followed was Yekini’s staggering blossoming and peak performances in front of a wider audience that saw him crowned African Footballer of the Year in 1993. His lack of remorse in front of goal saw him score an incredible 90 goals in 108 games for Vitoria Setubal – an incredible feat considering Setubal, unlike Porto, Benfica and Sporting, aren’t one of the traditional Portuguese powerhouses– becoming the top scorer in 1993-1994 with 34 goals in 32 games.
His team-mates for the 1994 African Cup of Nations-winning Super Eagles understood the value of the raging bull. The pizzazz of Jay-Jay Okocha, the blistering pace of Emmanuel Amunike and the tenacity and elegance of Sunday Oliseh would have been wasted without a reference point, an end product. And that’s where Yekini came in, scoring 5 goals in the tournament to finish as the top goalscorer. ‘Rashidi Yekini is the greatest Nigerian striker I ever played with,’ enthused Oliseh in Feet of the Charmeleon. ‘His strike was unbelievable. He was always asking for the ball and he was always easy to find. All you had to do was drop the ball between the lines of defence and he didn’t pause. He just struck. And usually high quality strikes.’
For the Super Eagles, Yekini is the all-time goalscorer by quite some distance with 38 goals in 57 games. His celebration after scoring the first goal in the 3-0 demolition of Bulgaria at the 1994 World Cup would ultimately define him and it would become one of the most published photographs of the tournament. He followed the trail of the ball into the goal and pushed his arms through the goal net, he closed his eyes and screamed to high heavens in a moment where – it seemed – he released a lifetime’s worth of bottled-up frustration, the type of frustration he often scored his goals with. It was these types of moments that made him so memorable to world football enthusiasts and even those who were barely part-time fans, like my father.
Rashidi Yekini: at his peak, one of the most feared strikers in world football and one of the greatest African strikers to have ever graced the beautiful game. Rest In Peace.