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Football | Super Eagles

Rashidi Yekini © Action Images

Yekini died with a secret

It was June 21, 1994 and around 44,132 spectators had crammed into the Cotton Bowl ground in Dallas, Texas to watch Nigeria play in their first-ever Fifa World Cup game against Bulgaria after emerging African champions in April of that year.

The first men to appear in a World Cup game for Nigeria's Super Eagles included Peter Rufai, Augustine Eguavoen, Ben Iroha, Chidi Nwanu, Uche Okechukwu, Finidi George, Sunday Oliseh, Daniel Amokachi, Emmanuel Amuneke, Samson Siasia and Rashidi Yekini.

The historic game

By the time Costa Rican referee, Rodrigo Badilla, signalled for proceedings to start the Bulgarians were clearly the favourites with the like of Hristo Stoichkov, Emil Kostadinov, Yordan Letchkov and Krasimir Balakov.

But Nigeria still had an outside chance of upsetting the Bulgarians who were making their sixth appearance at the Mundial in 1994.

Stoichkov's goal was struck off earlier but it was Nigeria's big forward, Yekini who opened score against the run of play.

The iconic image

His 51-second celebration was quite weird as he stood alone inside the post, gripped the net tightly and shook it with unrestrained emotion and strength as he muttered unrecognised words. And for Nigeria's first-ever World Cup goal, no teammate joined him in that celebration.

Yekini's iconic and raw celebration remains one of the memorable moments of the 1994 Fifa World Cup.

It is now close to 19 years since Yekini scored Nigeria's first goal at the Fifa World Cup followed by that iconic celebration and no one including his teammates of 1994, knew the exact words or reason for that celebration inside the Cotton Bowl.

Yekini's 1994 teammates

His room mate at USA '94, Thompson Oliha described him as a consummate professional but pointed out that he never discussed what the striker said while celebrating Nigeria's first World Cup goal.

"Yekini was a man of himself. A man who knew what he wanted and what he wanted to do for his country. He was always ready to risk everything for the team and country. As a footballer we are at times get carried away by our emotion or passion and that was what happened when he scored that goal.

"I think he was saying something like 'it is me! It is me!' Yes it was a goal with a touch of a team work but the man just celebrated the best way he thought. Remember Yekini was a man who loved to live without publicity and his name will remain in history as the first to score for Nigeria at the World Cup," Oliha told supersport.com on Saturday.

Another teammate of the 1994 squad, Mutiu Adepoju said the striker was passionate about the game and was a stickler for perfection.

"He was passionate about football on and off the pitch. He talked less but worked harder. Really no one can say what he was saying after he scored that goal but being the first-ever Nigerian goalscorer at the World Cup I understood the excitement. Yekini was just a simple man and he meant nothing about that celebration because he was so happy and passionate," said Adepoju.

Close friends in the dark

A few of his close friends and confidants knew nothing about that goal celebration either.

"No one will ever know what he was saying, as he granted no interview on it. I guess he was mentioning his name. He stopped granting interviews in his last days. We were in the process of setting up an interview as I was out of Nigeria for years. No matter the closeness, no one knew he would die so soon," said Kayode Tijani, a journalist and television producer, who was close to Yekini.

Ex-Nigeria internationals, Dimeji Lawal and Ike Shorunmu, who were his close friends said they never discussed such with him. But they felt they had a slight idea of the exact words.

Lawal said: "I think he was screaming his name and saying 'Alhamdulillahi! Alhamdulillahi!' He was an introvert and a philanthropist who was never after publicity."

"He did things according to what he felt was right and according to his religion, Islam and beliefs. So I guess he celebrated that goal the best way he could," said Shorunmu, now a goalkeeping trainer with Nigeria's Super Eagles.

The gang up story

But in 2011, former Super Eagles captain, Sunday Oliseh, opened a whole new chapter into what must have led to Yekini cutting a forlorn figure during his goal celebration. He told supersport.com that he believes there was a gang up against Yekini.

“The only reason I am saying this is for the future and for the country, for people to learn and because I feel that honour has not been given to Yekini like it should…some players had scores to settle with Yekini and all that.

“Yekini had some beef with some players because I was in the background, I was watching everybody and I know those who were involved.

“Some of our players were madly, sickly, mentally jealous the moment Yekini was honoured. He was leaving for Panathinaikos, and there was some jealousy there. Yekini himself was not smart enough to calm things down," said Oliseh.

But just hours after Yekini's death in 2012, a member of the 1994 squad, Victor Ikpeba dismissed any form of gang up against the striker.

"I played with Yekini for seven years in the national team. I also played alongside him at the 1992 Afcon and I was one of the youngest in the team then. He was a fantastic and honest person and a professional who took every game serious. In training sessions, he was always serious as if they were match situations.

"I was part of the team in 1994 to the World Cup and I don't agree that there was a gang up against Yekini. He played in 58 matches and scored 37 goals and his teammates created the chances for those goals. He was a conservative person and may be people may have used that to speculate this gang up thing," Ikpeba said.

The exact words that characterised that celebration will continue to remain elusive and will never be known as Yekini never spoke about it and died with it.

A biography titled 'Rashidi Yekini' was launched in honour of the late footballer in Ibadan this week.


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