Remembering gangling Rashidi Yekini
How can anybody be born on the same date, October 23, as Edson Arantes Do Nascimento, Pele, and be ordinary?
Rashidi Yekini was born in 1963, on October 23, exactly 23 years after Pele who, by the way, is still alive and kicking at 79.
I should have known that he would never be ordinary when he strolled almost effortlessly into a mega star-studded Shooting Stars FC team in 1984 and grabbed a shirt.
Greatness had been boldly written in his stars.
Yes, some 25 years ago in Ibadan, he walked into the greatest football team at the time in the country as a young unknown 21-year old ‘rookie’ from Kaduna and deservedly earned a place in a team with an awesome reputation and an assembly of supreme talent and solid experience.
By the time he left, less than two years later, he had become the cynosure of all eyes, and, potentially, one of the most to be celebrated in the country’s history.
Three days ago, Rashidi Yekini would have celebrated his 56th birthday had he not died suddenly on May 4, 2012, under very mysterious and suspicious circumstances that have never been investigated.
The story of Rashidi, like that of the legendary Pele, is of a man who became a phenomenal goal-scoring machine and one of his continent’s greatest all-time goal scorers.
Today, as I join in celebrating his birthday, posthumously, I also want to recall a little of our relationship.
He was brought to Shooting Stars FC by supporters of the club in Kaduna in 1984.
Rangers of Enugu had started that tradition of converting a football club into a social or political tool. Rangers FC was created from the debris of the Nigerian Civil War to unofficially become champions of the complete and accelerated re-integration of the Igbo people back into the mainstream of life in Nigeria.
The Yoruba responded immediately by expanding the agenda of their existing main football club and made it a movement of the Yoruba people too.
Thereafter, every supporter of Shooting Stars FC worldwide became an unofficial scout of the club, helping to identify and to recruit good players from their environment into the club.
What Shooting Stars FC became in the old Western State, became the template for other regional/State teams – Bendel Insurance FC of Benin, Raccah Rovers FC of Kano, Sharks FC of Port Harcourt, Alyufsalam Rocks FC of Ilorin, Rovers FC of Calabar, BCC Lions FC of Gboko, and so on – when they were created.
So, Rashidi was scouted in Kaduna in a local club called UNTL FC and brought to Ibadan with three other players, Kayode Aina, Olu Kalejaiye and Shola Akinshola, to strengthen Shooting Stars FC for the 1984 campaign to become the first club side in Nigeria to win the very coveted but elusive African Champions League trophy.
Shootings Stars FC were already loaded to the hilt with truly gifted and experienced players, mostly warriors from old battles, including surviving victors of the 1976 Africa Cup Winners Cup campaign, as well as winners of domestic FA and League trophies in that period.
Easily, there were seven regular players in the Nigerian national team, the Green Eagles, as well as several invitees to the Eagles in the squad – Muda Lawal, Best Ogedegbe, Felix Owolabi, Tunde Bamidele, Idowu Otubusen, Demola Adesina, Wakilu Oyenuga, Olumide Banjo, Adegoke Adelabu, and, of course, yours truly.
So, Rashidi Yekini and his three colleagues joined us at training one eventful morning at the training pitch of the Liberty Stadium, watched by hundreds of supporters.
No one, including Rashidi himself, could have imagined what was to become of this tall, gangly and clumsy player who was very limited at dribbling with the ball. He must have forgotten to pack that ability in his suitcase when leaving Kaduna. But what he packed was more than enough to earn him his eventual place in the team.
Rashidi was to confess to me how nervous he was in those first few days. It seemed like a dream to him to be on the same pitch with all the great players he had admired from a distance. It was the impetus he needed to make an impression doing what came naturally to him the most – banging in goals.
It took Rashidi about two training sessions to guarantee his place in the team under Chief coach Chief Festus Adegboye Onigbinde who was the first coach to invite Rashidi to the national team and to convince him that Shooting Stars FC was the best team for him to join.
Rashidi was never to relinquish his hold on that center-forward position again throughout the campaign for the African Club Championship of that year!
So, Rashidi and I started doing a lot of damage to opposing African teams as twin strikers during the campaign. It was almost too easy for him playing by my side, with all the experience that I had garnered through the years, coming into play. Because he was not well known then, he found space to deploy his immense arsenal of goal scoring when opposing defenders concentrated on me that they had known for almost a decade.
It was also very easy for me to help him ‘break’ him like a new horse into the Shooting Stars team because we communicated in the Hausa language. Rashidi liked that a great deal. Hausa was his first language and he spoke it flawlessly.
Off the field Rashidi was very reserved, unto himself most of the time, but full of humour and jokes whenever he chose to play the clown in the team.
On the field, he took his football very seriously. He trained as hard as anyone else and did not indulge in frivolous activities. He hardly ever complained about anything.
What he lacked in dribbling skills and fine passes, he more than made up for with his power, pace, ability to run into open spaces, cannon shots, great heading skills, and an uncanny nose for being at the right place at the right time in opposing boxes, and burying balls behind goalkeepers.
Rashidi knew how to score goals, how to place or bend the ball far from goalkeepers, and how to shoot his cannons from long distances.
He used all these skills to great advantage as he settled into life in Shooting Stars FC and steadily built up his haul of unprecedented number of goals.
In the history of Nigerian football at the national level, only I come a little bit close to Rashidi in terms of number of goals scored for the country in the national team. He scored 37 in 58 matches over a 14-year period, whilst I scored 23 in 46 matches in six years.
The disbandment of Shooting Stars FC following the team’s loss in the final match of the Champions League match against Zamalek FC of Egypt at the National Stadium in Lagos ended Rashidi’s romance with Shooting Stars. He left the club angrily, never to return again.
That’s when I also ended my football career.
1984 was the end of an incredible era for Shooting Stars FC, an era that started in 1970 and lasted 14 years.
I did not try to stop Rashidi even when I was made the general manager of the team in a futile attempt to salvage something out of the very bad decision created by disbanding the team for losing in the final of an African Cup!
That’s how a new chapter opened up for Rashidi as he migrated abroad, first to Cote D’Ivoire, Portugal, Spain, Greece, and back to Nigeria.
He got to the zenith of his football career in Victoria Setubal FC in Portugal. It was whilst in Portugal that his star shone most brightly, representing both club and country.
On the eve of the 1994 World Cup in the USA, Rashidi Yekini was one of the most talked-about players out of Africa in the world. He was the focus of a special World Cup edition of the international Newsweek magazine.
Rashidi did not let the world down in USA ’94.
He scored his first goal at the World Cup and celebrated it exuberantly. That goal is etched forever in the heart of Nigerians as one of their most memorable goals of the last Century.
I remember Rashidi Yekini very fondly on his 56th posthumous birthday. He was a prodigious goal scorer, a humble servant of the football, and a committed patriot with uncommon love for country, humanity and the less-privileged in society.
He paid the ultimate prize of his love for humanity with his life when his own family foolishly mistook his generosity for insanity and led him to an untimely death.
It is a tragedy that there is no national monument in his name anywhere in the country. One day, I hope he will be so honoured.
Continue to rest peacefully, Great Gangling.