One of the iconic images of the 1994 World Cup in the USA, is that of a player remaining in the net for a few seconds after scoring his team’s opening goal, shaking the net and talking to himself. It seemed like he had done more than just finish off a swift, flowing move that cut the Bulgarian defence to ribbons. And indeed, he had. He just scored his country’s first ever goal at a competition they had tried desperately to reach for decades.
It seemed almost like destiny. Rashidi Yekini had just finished one of his best seasons ever, scoring 32 goals in 34 games for Vitoria Setubal in the Portuguese league, to finish as top scorer. He went into that tournament as the current African footballer of the Year – the first Nigerian to win it – and as African champion. His goals were instrumental in winning the 1994 Nations Cup, and qualification for the World Cup. In all, his record was 37 goals in 58 games making him Nigeria’s leading scorer. He had other records too: he never missed a penalty for Nigeria. It could also be said that any ball hit that hard would be afraid of the consequences of disobeying him. With 13 goals, Yekini ranks third in the Nations Cup scoring charts.
That celebration against Bulgaria is the enduring memory most have of him. Whatever popularity the country has in football, is largely down to the exploits of that generation, and the skill and power they brought to the game. He was the crown jewel in the golden generation of Super Eagles players, a throwback to a time when Nigeria was expected to win the majority of its games.
Many goalkeepers had little hope of stopping Yekini’s shots. There was one freekick against Gabon that he crashed in from about 30 yards. A keeper from Zaire sprained his wrist trying to save one of them. His penalties were unsavable. After the 1994 World Cup, he went to Olympiakos in Greece and never quite settled, journeying around Europe before coming back to Julius Berger in 2003, then moving to Gateway FC in Abeokuta.
Throughout his career, it was clear that he loved football and just wanted to play.
As usual with Nigerians, when someone who has put the nation on the map in a good way passes on, there is a blame game. Questions like: ‘why did we not honour him when he was alive?’ are very common about this time. I do not know if there is a better way to honour a person, than to always associate his memory with feelings of gratitude and joy.
That was what Rashid Yekini gave us every time he played: joy. 1994 was a dark time, and his goals, performances and team-mates gave us many moments to treasure.
As he is buried today, we will treasure his memory in a way that cannot be done with money or material things. Our goal king is gone. Long live the king.
Watch the video of his heartfelt goal celebration: