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.