Rashidi Yekini: Remembering Nigeria’s Goalsfather
Today marks the tenth anniversary of Rashidi Yekini’s death
The striker scored Nigeria’s first FIFA World Cup goal and remains their all-time leading scorer
We pay tribute with a look back at his remarkable career
Ten years ago today, Nigeria was plunged into mourning. The sense of grief was matched only by shock as news emerged that Rashidi Yekini, at just 48, was dead.
Sunday Oliseh led the tributes, eulogising his former Super Eagles team-mate as “one of the best African players and legends to ever walk this earth”. And while the praise was lavish, it was justified by Yekini’s achievements.
The man dubbed Nigeria’s ‘Goalsfather’ remains, by some distance, his country’s greatest and most prolific marksman. No-one has even come close to matching his impressive haul of 37 strikes from just 58 appearances.
Yekini also specialised in historic goals, from the efforts that propelled Nigeria to their first FIFA World Cup™ and earned them a second African crown to, most famously of all, the one that opened their account at the global finals.
That poacher’s finish in Dallas’s Cotton Bowl, and the raw, emotional celebration that followed, remains the indelible, defining image of this tragic hero. But while the goal provided Nigeria with a platform to beat Hristo Stoichkov’s Bulgaria in their World Cup debut, then qualify from a tough section, the sight of its scorer feverishly grabbing at the net, crying “It’s me! it’s me!” elicits mixed emotions.
The expectation, after all, was that Yekini – a player seemingly reaching the peak of his awesome powers – would go on to even greater heights, at USA 94 and beyond. “We have not yet seen the real Rashidi Yekini,” his coach, Clemens Westerhof, said after beating Bulgaria. “It’s coming.”
The Dutchman’s conviction was widely shared. Nigeria’s star striker was, after all, the reigning African Football of the Year, had scored eight times in just seven qualifying appearances and, just two months earlier, had emerged from a triumphant AFCON as its player of the tournament and top scorer.
His club form was just as spectacular; with 21 goals for the newly promoted Vitoria Setubal, Yekini had become the club’s first player in half-a-century to win Portugal’s Bola de Prata. He was, in Oliseh’s words, the “real and only superstar” of Nigeria’s class of ‘94.
Confidence also oozed from the man himself, who had no hesitation in explaining why he felt unstoppable. “My goals come directly from God,” Yekini said at the time. “That is why many times 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.”
But despite Westerhof’s promise, “the real Rashidi Yekini” didn’t emerge in Nigeria’s remaining matches at USA ‘94 and was rarely seen thereafter. After missing a gilt-edged chance in extra time as Nigeria crashed out to ten-man Italy in the Round of 16, the striker lashed out, accusing his team-mates of not passing him the ball and saying he had “always been against” their Dutch coach.
Oliseh revealed later that there had been “beefs” between the reserved Yekini and other members of the Super Eagles squad, whom he described as being “madly, sickly, mentally jealous” of their star striker’s sporting and financial success.
“Rashidi did not understand player politics,” agreed Segun Odegbami, a friend and fellow Nigeria legend. “The training ground was his world. On it, he came alive and shone like the midday sun. Outside it, he almost did not exist. He would retreat into his own world, a narrow impregnable world, shut to all.”
Yekini went on to score just once more for his national team – in a friendly against Jamaica almost four years later – and his club career went into freefall too. In later years, even a long-promised homecoming fell flat. As resentment built at perceived poor treatment from Nigeria’s fans and broken promises from its football authorities, this already-reclusive icon withdrew yet further.
But while this decline and his sad, mysterious death added a tragic final chapter to Yekini’s story, his hallowed place in Nigerian football folklore had long since been secured. Ten years on, the Super Eagles’ Goalsfather remains a revered figure throughout Nigeria, Africa and beyond.
Yekini in quotes
“Rashidi was full of pace, had a superb shot, could jump very high, was calm in front of goal and was a very loveable person once you got to know and understand him.” Sunday Oliseh, former Nigeria team-mate
“Yekini was a great player – one of the greatest Nigerian attackers. It was a real privilege to play with him." Finidi George, who provided the assist for that famous goal against Bulgaria
“Yekini was a man of himself - a man who knew what he wanted and what he wanted to do for his country. He was always ready to risk everything for the team and country.” Thompson Oliha, former Nigeria team-mate
“There was a time I learnt that my [club] coach was complaining in the press that I went too often to play for Nigeria and that it affected his plans. Do you know what I told him? I told him nobody, repeat nobody, can stop me from playing for my fatherland. This is where my people love me not only because I score goals, but because I am their son. Even if Nigeria has a fixture against ants and cockroaches and I am invited, I will go and play.” Rashidi Yekini