This is a story of unkept promises to a football hero, Rashidi Yekini. He was loved in Nigeria and many worshipped him abroad.
The late Yekini still keeps the honour as Nigeria’s most dreaded striker in the history of the senior national football team-the Super Eagles.
A few weeks ago, fans across the globe observed the ninth year remembrance of the lethal striker whose death remains a puzzle to many till today. One day, he was walking the streets of Ibadan, and the next he was being buried in Ilorin.
Despite the attributes and accolades that come every year, Yekini, sadly, the bitter dose of unfulfilled promises and lip service that have most times greeted the death of a good number of Nigerian legends, has been served to his memory.
Every Saturday evening in Cocody, one of Abidjan’s affluent suburbs, people love to congregate at the indoor and outdoor club like Marqui restaurant and bar (painted in the Africa Sports d’Abidjan colours of red and green colour) to listen to live music together and dance.
But as the excitement reaches a crescendo, men would sit at a round table with three of the best beer brands, namely Doppelganger Munich, Foreign Stout, and Solibra Chill and argue over who was the best striker to wear the red jersey of Africa Sports of Abidjan
“Rashidi Yekini était notre meilleur attaquant” (Yekini remains our best strikers),” one man would say. As an onlooker nodded in affirmation, another barked out, “Jaime Gabriel Okolosi” (I love Gabriel Okolosi).
As the argument rages on, other tables would shift positions and join the chat. But as the men fell into new heights and got completely inebriated; and the argument became overly heated, they finally cast the lot and ended up picking Yekini as Africa Sports National deadliest striker of all time.
For Africa Sports fans, the name Yekini can never be forgotten. It was said that while parents named their babies after him, pubs and restaurants changed their names to the Rashidi Yekini Spot. He was so loved that the fans still gather at pubs to commemorate his death.
The phenomenal career of Yekini was significant for so many reasons; one, for his brilliance, and obviously as a supremely gifted striker who deservedly became African Footballer of the Year in 1993. Second, for his amazing scoring instinct, which saw him steer Nigeria to her second Africa Cup of Nations title in Tunisia in 1994, and alas, third, for the mysterious way he reportedly became a recluse and fell into mental depression.
Yekini did not have any airs of flamboyance-his game was all about goals and this made him many goalkeepers’ nightmare. Asked why he deliberately preferred to fire cannons during penalties when other strikers preferred to make it look simple by picking a spot to bury the ball, the goals-father declared in logical terms – a fast-moving ball is difficult for any goalkeeper to save. “I would rather fire a shot than pick a spot during penalties, I’m sure they [the ball and the goalkeeper] will both end up in the net if such a keeper attempts to stop it,” he said in one of his interviews.
Not primarily motivated by money, he joined Victoria Setubal and won the highest goals scorer award in 1994. It is on record that Yekini came to the 1994 World Cup and bagged Nigeria’s first- ever World Cup goal.
Words were rife that the way and manner with which he celebrated that opening goal screaming his name against Bulgaria sent tongues wagging among his teammates, and this was the beginning of his problems in the national team.
He never really consolidated his place in the national team as Nigeria qualified for the France 98 World Cup where Bora Milutinovic relegated him to the bench.
The likes of Victor Osimhen and Kelechi Iheanacho are working round the clock to equal and if possible, surpass Yekini’s feat, though his ability to make goal scoring look easy stands him out as Nigeria’s best and deadliest forward to have played the game. The stats back up this assertion as Yekini scored 37 goals in 62 matches for the Eagles.
The man who supplied the passes that ensured Yekini became one of the dreaded strikers in Africa, Sunday Oliseh, confirmed Yekini had a beef with some of his teammates who were jealous of his rise to stardom following his £100,000 a month deal with Olympiakos. Oliseh also lamented in one of his blog posts that the former Abiola Babes forward did not live up to his full potential.
“Rashidi Yekini is definitely one of the best African players and legends to ever walk this earth. 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. We lost not only a brother, friend, human being, legend, and compatriot, but we also lost a great opportunity to find out his unique secret of how to score goals easily like he did which only he knew how to,” Oliseh wrote on his blog page.
Despite his excellence and goal scoring ability over many active years, Yekini died with many of his dreams unfulfilled. Although not particularly driven by money, this mechanic apprentice turned footballer in Kaduna played football with a passion and usually played five-a-side at the Railway football pitch in Ibadan. He also left behind a legacy that has caused Nigerians to question the delay behind the government’s decision to immortalise him.
His lawyer, Jubril Olanrewaju, in an exclusive interview with Premium Times revealed that both state and federal governments merely made promises without putting the right machinery in place to fulfill them.
He may have done little to turn Kwara State football around, but cynics feel the state government should lead the cause to immortalise Yekini in the way and manner Ogun State honoured late Muda Lawal by naming the Asero Stadium after him.
“Where do I even start from, let me start from his home state; Kwara State. You recall that the most previous administration led by Abdul Fatai Ahmed promised to immortalise him by naming the Kwara Stadium after him. Yekini actually died one year after he became the governor, but for the past seven years, he hasn’t fulfilled all that he promised.
“Similarly, when present Governor Abdulrazak came in, he promised last year  that he would name the stadium after him but till date nothing has come out of it,” Olanrewaju said.
Where Is the Oyo State N5 million Endowment Fund?
Oyo State had a grand vision and dream towards immortalising Yekini, and late Governor Abiola Ajimobi did his bit by approving N5 million to set up an endowment fund in his remembrance. Yekini’s lawyers confirmed they have heard nothing of the money. With Ajimobi six feet below because of COVID-19, there has been no one to be held accountable for the money.
“Coming down to Oyo State, the government actually promised to have an endowment to his name and the Ajimobi administration donated a sum of N5 million. Dapo Lam was Commissioner for sports, and he acknowledged the Governor had fulfilled his promise. But subsequently, when we approached them over the money, it’s been one story or the other,” Mr Olanrewaju revealed.
Known for her long antecedence of failed promises, the Federal government through the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) also vowed to establish a U-19 tourney to further immortalise Yekini’s name in the hearts of the coming generation, but nothing has been done to date.
“For the Federal government, NFF promised to establish a U-19 tourney in his name but up till now, that has not come to fruition. It has been a series of failed promises from every organ of government,” Mr Olanrewaju lamented.
“At least I can confidently tell you that his property here in Ibadan that is very close to Oni & Sons hospital is under the control of his children now. I ensured I held on to that property until they became mature enough to handle their father’s property.
Luckily, it was when they became mature that they could get a tenant to occupy the property. There is a tenant who came in last year and they are fully in charge. As for the property in his hometown of Ijagbo, you know the mother is still living there and there is absolutely nothing the children can do for now because even when he (Yekini) was alive, the mum had been occupying the property,” said Yekini’s lawyer.
The labour of our heroes past
Nigeria’s failure to take good care of its legends, both alive and dead, has continued to raise a question mark on the importance of patriotism. There is a history that Nigeria has, which is to forget the legacies and labours of her heroes.
Sports Minister Sunday Dare took a bold step to suggest a long-term plan that will cater for ailing sport legends, but they have done nothing to actualise the project.
This newspaper reported how the ministry reached out to Yekini’s mother, but they should gear more efforts towards ensuring the labour of her son past does not go down in vain.
Uche Okafor died in 2011 while Wilfred Agbonavbare died a pauper working at the Madrid airport. He was diagnosed with cancer and the Nigerian government did not come to his aid until he breathed his last in 2015. Former captain and coach of the national team, Stephen Keshi’s grave is in a pathetic state as at the time of filing this report.
The government has to put the right structures in place to ensure people do not get discouraged from representing Nigeria. Unfortunately, the present picture does not send the right message that can encourage upcoming athletes to be patriotic and to give their all to Nigeria.
For those football-loving fans at Cocody pubs and Marquis restaurant and bar in Abidjan, Yekini’s memory is one of goals and victories and Nigerian authorities can ensure that Yekini’s memory brings such to those he left behind and those aspiring to his record.
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