When Eagles soared

Having converted a low cross from the right to give Nigeria the lead against Bulgaria, Yekini stood in the goal, arms through the net, hands alternately clenched around the strings and clasped to his face as tears rolled down his cheeks.

Rashidi Yekini died on Friday, aged just 48. He was one of the greats of the Nigerian game and was responsible for one of the great World Cup moments — probably, after Marco Tardelli’s in the 1982 final, the greatest World Cup celebration.

Having converted a low cross from the right to give Nigeria the lead against Bulgaria, the Super Eagles’ first goal in the final stages of a World Cup, he stood in the goal, arms through the net, hands alternately clenched around the strings and clasped to his face as tears rolled down his cheeks.

This was 1994 and Nigeria’s entrance onto the world stage and, after Cameroon’s performance in reaching the quarter-final four years earlier, there was a real sense that African football had arrived. The man in the net reaching out with tears of joy: the symbolism was almost certainly unconscious, but it wasn’t hard to find. This was about far more than a goal against Bulgaria.

Yekini was a powerful, explosive forward, blessed with a ferocious right foot. It brought him 37 goals in 58 internationals — still the Nigerian record — but more than that, he scored goals at vital times.

He got four in five games in the Cup of Nations in 1994 as Nigeria won the trophy for the second time. He scored two in the vital 4-0 home win over South Africa in World Cup qualifying, as well as the only goal away to Congo.

It was both fitting and predictable that it should be him who got the first World Cup goal — and after a typical move too: the slowing of pace, the break from deep, then sudden injection of pace and the low cross. This was what Nigeria were capable of: muscular, yes, but with an almost Brazilian command of tempo. They lost narrowly to Argentina but beat Greece to make it to the second phase, where they lost a classic against a Roberto Baggio-inspired Italy. The future, for Yekini, for Nigeria and Africa seemed bright.

But then the Nigerian dictator Sani Abacha had the dissident novelist Ken Saro-Wiwa hanged. The South African government condemned the execution, and Abacha withdrew the Super Eagles from the 1996 Cup of Nations to be hosted in South Africa. CAF banned them from the next tournament as well. Nigeria won Olympic gold in 1996 but, far from being the start of a run of success, that turned out to be the end. Nigeria have still won only two Cups of Nations; failing to qualify this year.

Yekini was too old for the Olympics in 1996, but he might not have been selected anyway. He turned 30 in October ’93, the year he was named African Player of the Year. That season he scored 34 goals in 32 games for Vitoria Setubal, making him the top scorer in the Portuguese league.

The World Cup though, made him a star and it earned him a lucrative move to Olympiakos. He had a miserable time in Greece, never getting on with the rest of the squad and starting just four matches.

He drifted on to Sporting Gijon, back to Setubal and Zurich, then on to clubs in Tunisia, Saudi Arabia and Cote d’Ivoire before finally winding up back in Nigeria.

He wasn’t selected for the 1998 World Cup and, apart from his ill-advised comeback with the now-defunct Nigerian club Gateway in 2005, Yekini had largely disappeared from public view.

The circumstances surrounding his death remain mysterious. Since 2005, he lived almost as a recluse. There were various unconfirmed reports that he was suffering from depression or bipolar disorder.

Last month Segun Odegbemi, the former Nigeria captain, addressed concerns about his well-being in his newspaper column saying that he’d spoken to the former forward and that he was intending to return to the game to promote youth football.

But, according to MTN Football, a fortnight ago, neighbours reported Yekini was behaving strangely, prompting his mother and the second of his three wives to take him to a rest home in Ibadan. It was there that he died.

Yekini was a great player, but he was also a great symbol. That celebration in the net was maybe Nigeria’s zenith, the time when the Cup of Nations champions looked on a glorious future that never arrived.

Yekini was buried on Saturday morning; it feels as though the optimism he once represented in Nigerian football was buried long ago.

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