When soccer legend, Rashidi Yekini bestrode the narrow walls of African football stardom like a colossus in the 1980s and 1990s, the Messis, the Ronaldos, Beckams, Drogbas and Eto’os of this world were probably still living in certain remote neighbourhoods, stealing out time when running errands for their mamas, to catch a glimpse on television, of the striking artistry of the foremost African footballer. Rashidi Yekini, 49, first Nigerian to win in 1993 the coveted African Footballer of the Year award, is, reportedly and so sadly, no more! He was said to have died of acute depression three days ago in Ibadan, where he retired to since 2003 when he called it quits with international football.
Rashidi started his soccer career in 1981, in Kaduna, where he was born. His career break however came in Ibadan, where he plied his trade for Shooting Stars Football Club and was from there called to the national team, the Green Eagles, in 1984, to represent the country in his first ever Nations Cup. A dangerous combination with the “mathematical” Odegbami upfront made the Nigerian soccer team formidable and the attack one of the most dreaded by African opponents. From Ivory Coast in 1984, Yekini went ahead to play the 1988, 1990, 1992, 1994 and 1998 Nations Cup competitions, thus making him the African player to have played in more international tournaments.
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Rashidi’s record also shows how he had successfully become the best cross-over footballer, having outlived his old teammates of the 1980s, such as Christain Chukwu, late Muda Lawal, Dr. Felix Owolabi, all of whom retired in the early 1980s, almost twenty years before him; as well as featuring alongside another generation of players in the late 1980s, such as Thompson Oliha, Peter Rufai, Ike Shorunmu, Henry Nwosu, et cetera; and yet playing side by side with much younger generation of players like Jay Jay Okocha, Mutiu Adepoju, Finidi George and Emmanuel Amuneke in the late 1990s. Indeed, Yekini played active football for over 20 years (1984-2005). He had a long and an uninterrupted spell surviving three generations of footballers, thus beating the record of Cameroon’s Roger Milla, who only returned after a long retirement from playing.
In the course of his commitment to national service, Rashidi netted 37 goals in 58 international appearances, thus making him one of the all-time highest goal scorers in international football. He had 12 goals in all his Nations Cup appearances, which makes him the third highest goal scorer in the history of the African Cup of African (AFCON). He had earned the award for the highest goal scorer in several Nations Cup tournaments, and had dominated local leagues in Africa and Europe where he played as the goaleador. While plying his trade in Ivory Coast, Portugal, Greece, Switzerland and Saudi Arabia, Yekini led the goal charts. His most inspiring experience was in Portugal where he was the Goal King with 34 goals in 32 matches! No wonder, that same season, he won the African version of the “Ballon d’Or” in 1993 as the Best Player. Indeed, since his exit from the Eagles almost 12 years ago, we have never had a striker as deadly as the gangling Yekini.
Yekini opened the Eagles’ account in the 3-0 whipping of Bulgaria in the opening match of their first-ever World Cup campaign, which held in the United States in 1994. This became Nigeria’s first-ever goal in the FIFA World Cup. After 1994, he featured again in Nigeria’s return to the World Cup in 1998, where the Africans maintained an awe-inspiring record, including beating Spain to go beyond the first round.
Despite all these enviable feats, Yekini returned home to live a reclusive life, shutting his world against the expansive global fan-base that wanted to associate with him. Aside coming out once in a while in the evenings to play ‘sets’ on the Methodist Primary School field around Adamasingba in Ekotedo, Ibadan; off the pitch, Rashidi Yekini completely insulated himself from any social interactions. He was disappointed, sad, and frustrated. He was once reported to be suffering mental illness, a shocking negative report that further got him despondent. He rejected all branding offers from local and international football bodies, companies and associates. He complained of being betrayed by people he loved and trusted so much. He lampooned the Nigerian Football Association (NFA/NFF) for destroying the enviable legacy the past soccer heroes had toiled to build. He sent his tenants packing from his vast Ring Road estate, and lived all alone there with no wife, no children, and no stewards. His marriage had crashed in 1994, which led to serial affairs with two other women, all of which resulted in three children. None of them was however living with him. The estate reportedly got overgrown with weeds.
Rashidi’s descent from heroism to ‘zeroism’ right ultimately leading to his untimely demise, right before our very eyes, is very, very, very sad indeed. He may have opted for a solitary life, but after that whistle blown of his ill-health, as a national personality, more attention could have been paid to him by private and public individuals. At that level and with such stature, he had become “government’s affair”. They could have persuaded him by those he still trusted, such as Odegbami, or summarily taken custody of him, all for the sake of saving him from what eventually befell him. It is disheartening to know that Yekini had even degenerated to that level of staying in a cocoon overgrown with weeds all alone for years, as well as walking the streets of Ibadan barefoot, without his cronies, football family or government taking a decisive action. It is a shame that when the likes of Pele, Maradona, Kalusha Bwalya and Hossam Hassan are treated like kings back in their homesteads, our own hero who had brought us on the global map of football was abandoned to his cocooned lonesomeness up to untimely death!
If Yekini were a German, he would have been cherished like Beckenbauer. If he were an Englishman, he would have been deified like Beckam. If he were a Dutchman, he would have been a cult personality like Ruud Gullit. And if he were a Ghanaian, he would have been venerated like Abedi Pele Ayew. Was it then unfortunate that Rashidi Yekini was a Nigerian? It is only here in Nigeria that people who give so much to fatherland are treated like they committed a crime by serving their country. The hero who designed the National Flag for instance, is still wallowing in total squalor somewhere in a remote part of Ekotedo in Ibadan. The appropriate authorities would not rise to put smile on his face until the worst happens.
Rashidi did not deserve to die like a homeless criminal. He had a great home, Nigeria. We were privileged to have had the King of African Football in our midst, but we neither appreciated this rare privilege nor cared about it. God is so generous to always bless us with great people, but we waste them. What if, for our lack of gratitude, He begins to divert what belongs to us, to our neighbours, such as Benin Republic and Niger Republic? Can we remain great? As we pray for the repose of the soul of Rashidi Yekini, may his God forgive us all for wasting him.
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