2nd April 1994
Africa Cup of Nations Quarter Finals
Nigeria 2-0 Zaire
It was the simplest of finishes. The ball was played across the face of goal and all the centre forward had to do was knock it in. But the celebration showed what an important goal it was. After Rashidi Yekini opened the scoring for Nigeria against Bulgaria at USA ’94 – the country’s first ever goal at a world cup finals in their first ever game at a world cup finals – he carried on into the goal, reached his arms through the netting and pumped his fists, bellowing with pride. It would become one of the tournament’s most iconic images. The Super Eagles had landed.
You can often tell how revered a player is by the number of nicknames bestowed upon him, and Yekini had more than Apollo Creed in Rocky IV – ‘the Bull of Kaduna’, ‘Ye-king’, ‘King of Goals’ and ‘The Goalsfather’ were all monikers that the striker acquired over the course of a 23-year career. The Nigeria side of the mid-90s is indisputably their greatest ever, but the subtle creative talents of players like Jay Jay Okocha, Finidi George and Sunday Oliseh would have counted for little had they not had someone to stick away the chances they fashioned, and at his peak the barrel-chested Yekini was the best in the business. That was certainly Oliseh’s view, anyway, declaring him “the greatest Nigerian striker I ever played with: He was always asking for the ball and always easy to find. All you had to do was drop the ball between the lines of defence and he didn’t pose. He just struck. And usually high quality strikes.” His scoring record for club and country backs that up – Yekini notched a staggering 110 in 122 games at Vitoria Setubal, becoming only the fourth African to top the Portuguese scoring charts, while he is the Super Eagles’ all-time record goalscorer with 37 goals.
As well remembered as that goal and celebration against Bulgaria in Dallas are, the real showcase for Yekini’s talents came earlier that year at the Africa Cup of Nations in Tunisia. At the very height of his powers, he was Nigeria’s – and indeed Africa’s – main man in that tournament. The African Player of the Year, he hauled his country to the finals with eight goals in a very tight qualifying campaign, and didn’t stop scoring once the they got there, hitting two in the Super Eagles’ opener against Gabon and then destroying Zaire in the quarter finals with the brace featured here. His first was perhaps his best of the competition, outpacing his marker to collect a crossfield pass beautifully with one touch before casually stabbing the ball into the roof of the net. The semis saw him net a vital equaliser against the Ivory Coast and then score the winning penalty in the climactic shoot out. It was only in the final itself when his heroics finally ceased, as team mate Emmanuel Amunike scored both goals to claim Nigeria’s first ACON title with victory over Zambia, who’d shocked everyone by making it all the way to the final just months after the tragic plane crash that wiped out the vast majority of their squad. Yekini became the first reigning African Player of the Year to win the Cup of Nations and finished as the tournament’s top scorer with five goals.
At the world cup, the newly crowned African champions topped their group and were unlucky to lose to 10-man Italy in the last 16 – although, as Ian Hawkey notes in Feet of the Chameleon, his superlative history of African football, by then tensions between Yekini and other team mates and coach Clemens Westerhof had surfaced. These were magnified after cautious substitutions contributed to the Italy defeat: “This coach has never liked me,” Yekini would protest in the aftermath.
After the finals, many of that terrific Nigeria side departed for top European sides. Amunike would head first to Sporting Lisbon and then Barcelona; Daniel Amokachi helped Everton to the FA Cup in 1995 (the same year that Finidi’s Ajax won the Champions’ League). However, the move from Portugal to Greece that Yekini’s performances in the US earned would prove the beginning of the end for him, career-wise. Leaving behind Setubal, where he was adored, Yekini’s stint at Olympiakos was a nightmare almost from the very beginning. His arrival in Athens was delayed after he contracted a condition with malaria-like symptoms, and once there he soon came into conflict with team mates and coaches alike, bemoaning that “Olympiakos is not a family club”. By Christmas 1994 the Greek champions were actively looking to get rid of him. Farmed out to La Liga with Sporting Gijon, he would never again hit the heights he did in Portugal, and not even a brief return to Setubal on loan could get him back on track.
He did rediscover his scoring touch at FC Zurich, with 14 goals in 28 starts for the Swiss side, and his form earned him a last hurrah with Nigeria at France ’98, at the age of 35. There he was used mainly as an impact sub, most notably in the Super Eagles’ thrilling defeat of Spain, when his entrance with 20 minutes remaining helped turn the game in their favour. 2-1 down when he came on, Nigeria profited from Yekini’s power and the space his movement opened up, Garba Lawal equalising from a Yekini pass before Oliseh’s famous piledriver won it. Yekini retired from international football following Nigeria’s second round exit at the hands of Denmark.
It wasn’t until 2002 that Yekini returned to Nigeria, to play for Julius Berger FC, and even at the age of 39 he led the country’s scoring charts. Yet again he managed to fall out with another coach, quitting Berger just a week before their African Cup Winners’ Cup final in 2003. He retired at the end of that season, but made a comeback at the age of 41 with another Nigerian side, Gateway, at the age of 41, declaring: “football is my life”.
Unfortunately, that seems to be where Yekini’s problems started. After retiring again, this time for good, he lived a lonely existence, struggling without the game he loved, and went into a steep decline. Financial problems mounted, and the last years of his life were beset by a long battle with mental illness. His death last year, aged just 48, shocked African football, and raised serious questions about how the Nigerian Football Federation treats its heroes. His passing was mourned across the continent.
Yekini left a hell of a legacy. He was the first Nigerian to be named African Player of the Year, opening the gates for his countrymen to dominate the award during the 90s. Amunike claimed the accolade the next season. Nwankwo Kanu (twice) and Victor Ikpeba would follow suit before the end of the decade.
It’s perhaps surprising that he never got the chance to play for a ‘big’ club in a top European league. Maybe, at 30/31 when he hit his peak and really came to the football world’s attention, he was just slightly too old for a Premier League club to take a punt on him, but his swashbuckling, turbo-John Hartson act was surely tailor-made for English football.
The Super Eagles have never quite hit the heights of their ACON and Olympic Gold winning mid-90s heyday. Their 2013 campaign is off to a less than auspicious start – but there’s still time for another ‘goalsfather’ to make his mark – and do the Bull of Kaduna proud.