It’s been a dark, gloomy couple of weeks for Nigerian football and Nigeria. It’s sickening reading the accounts of the last weeks of Rashidi Yekini, one of Nigeria’s true heroes. Every bit of story feels like tiny needles stabbing the abdomen.
Rashidi Yekini went mad! Rashidi Yekini is dead!
For a few moments, those lines sound like they’re from a terrible Nollywood movie. Or, an American urban slang where “mad” actually means “good”
But, there are no semantics here. Somehow, some people have connived to rob Nigeria of one its humblest heroes. A man who seemed shocked that a simple thing as scoring goals can make him a household name. A man who never sought fame and when fame came, he took and umbrella and hid under it.
I saw Yekini a while ago when I was visiting my parents in Ibadan He was on his way to practice football. He looked like the old Yekini – quiet, and guarded. I was jealous of the man because he was faster and fitter than me in my younger years. And, he still looked fitter than me as he got near middle age.
The man didn’t look mad. I know a mad man when I see one. If Yekini was mad then Nigeria is a country of mad men and women.
I remember the first time I heard of the name Rashidi Yekini. I was a kid in Ibadan who lived and breathed Shooting Stars. I snuck out of the house to watch their training when I could. The gate men at the stadium knew me because I was always begging to get in to watch a game.
One day, I think it was in 1984, there was a buzz around Liberty Stadium. We were signing this “mallam” called Rashidi Yekini. They said he was as tall as a giant and strong as a horse. They said was he could score goals in his sleep. This man, the old sages who’d been around the team forever, told us was the final missing piece that would win us the elusive African Club Champions Cup.
When I finally managed to sneak out and watch one of his first practices, Yekini was as good as advertised. The man was a monster. He packed lead in his boots. I feared for the goalkeepers trying to stop him. I knew on that day that, if there is a God, we would win the elusive Cup that December.
Our paths crossed many years later when I became a sports reporter. Yekini was more guarded. Fame had always been foreign to him. After the Eagles started soaring and Yekini was setting the Portuguese league on fire, fame trailed him like a shadow. He was a reporter’s nightmare. He plays, he scores and he rarely granted interviews.
But, I had an in. I was from the old days in Ibadan. He remembered me from those days and seemed a little amused I’d grown in a few years to be a flashy Lagos reporter. I could get bits and pieces from him
I laugh when people talk about rivalry in that truly super Eagles team of the mid-1990s. Yekini had no rivals. He had the number 9 jersey sewn. The rivalry was for his attacking partner. And, that fight was between Samson Siasia, Daniel Amokachie and, to some extent, Victor Ikpeba. Clemens Westerhof’s unspoken motto was, “if Yekini was fit, he played.
And, it worked so great the Eagles were two moments of carelessness away from going farther than any African team have gone in the world cup. Those were the months and years when to be a Nigerian was a great thing, the times when people saw you in foreign cities, shouted “Nigeria” enviously and give you a thumbs up. It was a time non-Nigerians would claim to be Nigerians.
Nigeria’s success wasn’t due to Yekini’s goals alone. And, he never came out to claim that. That team was like a family, a dysfunctional family no doubt – but one with brilliance coursing through its veins. And, the arrowhead of the attack of that team was Yekini. Together, that set of Eagles made Nigeria hip again.
Yekini has always been Yekini – quiet, withdrawn, guarded and a Yoruba man who was more comfortable with the Hausa tongue and Hausas. If he was mad at the end of his life, he must have been mad all along because he never really changed.
Often, Nigerian sports men and women are rightly castigated for their lack of patriotism. But, there are still those who take a pride in wearing the national colors. They will die for Nigeria, if it comes to it. One of those men was Yekini. He bled the green white green. Nigeria was important to him. Now, in his death, Nigeria must show he is important to the country. And, it’s not just in naming some stadium or competition after him.
If there is law in Nigeria, if there is justice, the federal government will step in today and investigate the manner of his death. The police will round up all the actors in this sordid affair and probe them. If they don’t, then what’s the point in being a Nigerian hero. They sure don’t come bigger than Yekini.
Ose Oyamendan, a former sports journalist, and now filmmaker, writes a weekly column for Premium Times from Los Angeles in the United States.