By Oyediji Oluwaseun Babatunde
Sports Writer, kick442.com Nigeria
It’s over two decades that Super Eagles won their second African Cup of Nations, AFCON trophy in Tunisia 1994 as well as making it to their maiden FIFA World Cup in the USA. A major player in Nigeria’s 1994 Golden football era is “Gangling” Rashidi Yekini of blessed memory.
Yekini is on the number four spot on the list of Green/Super Eagles Greatest of all time [GOAT] since 1945 as compiled by Soccernittygritty.
4. Rashidi Yekini
‘We lost to Cameroon because we didn’t have Yekini. He’s the best striker we’ve ever had but it’s a shame he wasn’t treated like he ought to. What they did to this man is UNBELIEVABLE. He was one of the best African players and legends to ever walk this earth’. – Sunday Oliseh recounting the major reason Nigeria failed to win AFCON 2000 on home soil.
The former skipper of the national team further buttressed the ineffectiveness of the strikers enlisted in the squad after Cameroon center-back, Raymond Kalla, confessed to him years later when they both became teammates at the Bundesliga club, VFL Bochum: – ‘He confessed to me he had a torn muscle with a bandage on and yet, was still able to fend off threats from our strikers all day”. Such was how easy Cameroon backline found the game.
Call him ‘Rashidi’, ‘Rachid’, or ‘Rasheed’, while the diversity in his first name is apparent, his last name- ‘Yekini’ unites every single fan of the game worldwide. It’s a name synonymous to only one thing – GOALS. Unarguably the greatest striker in the history of Nigeria, if not Africa, his level of patriotism is such that can only be relayed in the realm of fairytales. His simplicity and outlook to life is most unrivaled, and indeed, his management of fame and superstardom is one worthy of integration in the curriculum of schools nationwide with a view to instilling values in kids and even present-day professionals in the game.
‘Goalsfather’, as nicknamed by veteran journalist, Mumuni Alao in an interview with the legend shortly before the make or mar World Cup qualifier against Algeria, he made some philosophical utterances which typified his uncommon humility, a rarity in today’s game: “There are no guarantees- I am not the one in control of my destiny. My goals come directly from God. I know people always wonder about the secret behind my goals, but the matter is simple. God is the top-secret behind my goals. That’s why when I go into a game and some opponents boast that they would prevent me from scoring, I simply laugh at them. No man can stop what God had decreed. If God says I’ll score, then I MUST SCORE, no matter what anybody does or says”.
Yekini didn’t score in that final game in Algiers, a game which engraved Nigeria’s name in the annals of history, again, his lack of goals on the day was consistent with his philosophy and outlook to life: “Conversely, I’m also never under any pressure to score when I go into a match because I know that God determines what will happen. Take this evening’s game, for instance, I know some people would be worrying their heads over whether Yekini will score or not, but here I am enjoying myself. Which one concerns me”. The striker was found by Mumuni Alao cooling-off quietly in a corner after lunch while the rest of the squad had returned to their respective rooms. He told Mumuni he wanted his meal to digest before hitting his bed.
Yekini continued in a most relaxed tone: “For me, it makes no difference. If I score it’s fine, if I don’t score, it’s ok. It’s no problem for me as long as we qualify for the USA. I remember our games against Côte d’Ivoire, they boasted I wouldn’t score in Abidjan, but my goal came down from the heavens after only 5 minutes. Again, they came to Lagos determined to stop me, but I scored again by the Power of God Almighty.” He submitted humbly.
An unrivaled patriot, Yekini was one who prioritized national assignment over anything else without giving a hoot about its consequences. While with the Portuguese club, Vitoria Setubal, his disgruntled manager expressed his reservations about Yekini’s unwavering commitment to National course: “There was a time I reported for a national assignment and before I got back, I learned that my coach was complaining in the press that I went too often to play for Nigeria and this affects his plans. Do you know what I told him? I told him NOBODY, repeat NOBODY, can stop me from playing for my fatherland. I told him that Nigeria is my birthplace to which I’ll return after my career in Europe. This is where my people love me not only because I score goals, but because I am their son. I told him never to complain about my reporting for Nigeria again. I told them not to try to stop me from playing for Nigeria because they won’t succeed”.
Yekini reiterated to Mumuni how much he buttressed his passion for National course to his club Manager: “Even if Nigeria has a fixture against ants and cockroaches and I am invited, I’ll go and play- Now the Setubal people understand what I’m saying. The worst he could do is stop my allowance, but who told him I care about money? No club can deceive me with the tale that I’m indispensable. They’ll say that only because I’m scoring for them now. But who knows what’ll happen tomorrow? If I break my leg now (God forbid) they will simply cast me aside. But if I do it for Nigeria, at least, I can always return to Ibadan to sit down with my people. There’s no place like home”.
Young Yekini, aged 18, kicked off his professional career with Kaduna-based club, UNTL, it was until he joined the famous Ibadan side, Shooting Stars that he started showing glimpses of his goal-scoring prowess in a two-year spell of 53 games and 45 goals. He continued to hone his skills locally and was a huge success with Abiola Babes of Abeokuta, later, leading the African side, African Sports of Abidjan.
Yekini finally accessed Europe in 1990 via the Portuguese Second division with Vitoria Setubal in a near-hogwash deal which Yekini only accepted as a sacrifice for better things ahead. After a couple of seasons, his imperious form made him attain a career-high of 34 goals in only 32 games- one of the highest returns in the whole of Europe. His goals propelled his side to the elite division where he replicated the same sublime form with 21 goals, the highest in the Primera Liga. The daredevil-goal poacher wasn’t happy with the remuneration he was receiving but remained a thorough professional that he was until the end of his contract.
Yekini was Africa’s equivalent of Marco Van Basten plus more. His prolific goal-scoring stats is well documented as his eight goals in seven games through the qualifiers en route USA 1994 facilitated Nigeria’s progress to the Mundial. He wasn’t Lilly-livered, far from a coward who scored only against nimble opponents.. no. He was one for the very big games.
“I doubt if there’s ANYWHERE IN THE WORLD you’ll find a player who could hit the ball with such power from such a tight position as that and keep it within the target zone. That’s why I said scouts’ll be queuing up to get this man. He’s got a good three years of football left in him aged, 31”.
– Archie Macpherson, veteran Scottish commentator on Yekini’s thunderbolt of a freekick vs Gabon in Tunisia.
He was a striker who mirrored completeness- ‘FAST’; as seen in the manner he raced down the line before unleashing a ferocious shot from what pundits labeled “an impossible angle” (corner flag) against Algeria in Lagos. ‘STRONG’; as seen in the manner he muscled his way through the Gabonese defense, lobbed the ball over the on-rushing goalie, before slotting it into an open net with a simple header. ‘GREAT FOOTWORK’; he exemplified this severally including the manner of his assist to Siasia in a World Cup game against Argentina, he left the duo of Fernando Redondo and Diego Simeone in the wilderness before laying the assist.
‘DEAD-BALL SPECIALIST’; too numerous to list as succinctly described above by Archie. He was any Manager’s dream striker. Sadly, like Keshi, his peak coincided with the mid-1990s boom. Aged 31 in 1994, he wasn’t the most marketable.
After a great AFCON in Tunis where he topped the scoring charts with five goals and emerged tournament’s Most Valuable Player [MVP] , he scored Nigeria’s first-ever World Cup goal in the summer and registered 2 assists for Amokachi vs Bulgaria, and Siasia vs Argentina assisted Lawal’s goal vs Spain in 1998. He picked up a knee injury in a friendly against England at Wembley. The injury turned out an albatross in his career, he hardly recovered from it till retirement.
He attempted renaissance in the La Liga with Gijon with little success, nonetheless, his two goals against Capello’s Real Madrid still lingers.
He featured in five AFCON netting 13 times, two World Cup, one Olympic, crowned African Player of the Year (APOTY) in 1993, and Nigeria’s All-time highest goal scorer with 37 in only 58. A younger Yekini in the mid-1990s would have been a legit Ballon D’or candidate. The conflict between his prime and time is the ONLY reason why he isn’t Naija’s GOAT.
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