Celebrated in his heyday, Rashidi Yekini, all-time Super Eagles highest goal scorer, departed to the great beyond without the blaze of glory that once accompanied his stellar football career
“They wasted him!” exclaimed one of the neighbours when the magazine visited the sprawling residence at Oni and Sons Way, near Ring Road, Ibadan, Oyo State. It was desolate. Only the intermittent, loud, high-pitched cries from peacocks, which Rashidi Yekini kept as his last few companions after he reportedly told his human tenants and gateman to vacate his premises, could be heard inside.
It wasn’t the kind of sound heard during their mating season. It was almost like a mourning cry, an eerie reminder of how one man, once a famous footballer who was celebrated by millions, was tossed about by personal troubles of varying degrees and managed to live in such isolation for many years, lonely, hurt and deeply depressed. “They have refused to come out, especially when press people come around and seem to know that their benefactor is no more,” noted another neighbour, speaking of the strange behaviour of the peacocks.
In 2010, Yekini’s iconic goal at United States, US, 1994 FIFA World Cup was ranked number eight in the Top 50 Most Memorable World Cup celebrations of all time, as polled by Goal.com in association with Coca-Cola. As Super Eagles leading goal scorer, it was Yekini’s luck to make history as the first Nigerian to score at the FIFA World Cup. The way he celebrated the goal was aptly described as “sheer unrestrained joy” and “raw emotion at its absolute best.”
Indeed, it was Yekini’s avalanche of goals that ensured that Nigeria won its second Africa Cup of Nations trophy in Tunisia 1994 and also qualified for its debut World Cup that same year. Although he was at the 1998 edition in France, that goal was the last that he ever scored in the World Cup. But he remained on the fringes of popularity, while trading his skills with Africa Sports of Ivory Coast, national club sides like the defunct Julius Berger of Lagos and Gateway of Abeokuta, until he finally hung his professional boots for good.
In a cruel twist of fate, Yekini faded away from the limelight like a hermit. Since he left active football, the only thing he knew how to do after being a mechanic apprentice in Kaduna, isolation and depression seemed to have been his closest companions. While rumours about his struggle with deep depression, baffling reclusive lifestyle and mental state of health, especially in the last few years of his life, were spoken about and written in whispers. This was the state of affairs until Friday, May 4, when without the cheer of many thousands and the attendant blaze of glory his death was announced to a shocked nation, which in the past had been severally united by Yekini’s goals. At 48, it was an untimely death for a legendary striker who made goal scoring a habit.
But some persons saw it coming. “The state I met him was sad and wasn’t what I wanted to see of someone who made many Nigerians happy with his goals. Even policemen at the stadium would rush to the pitch and hug Yekini. That day, he was like an absent-minded person. Although he spoke rationally and was able to answer my questions coherently, you could see that this man had lost the capacity to love and be loved, the capacity to forgive and be forgiven, and you could see some level of dejection. Don’t forget that he had marital issues, marriage didn’t work for him and, that constituted loss of love, and maybe he was in that state where he felt that there was nothing like love,” said Godwin Spiff-Sagbamah, chief executive officer, Hallysports International, who interviewed the late football legend early in 2010. The interview took place just before the FIFA World Cup in South Africa and shortly after Yekini had refused the World Cup ambassadorial role proposed to him by the Nigeria Football Federation, NFF.
Yekini also rejected the sumptuous financial offer to participate in the Africa Football Legend exhibition match played in Lagos in July 2009. According to Spiff-Sagbamah, any attempt he made to talk about Nigerian football with Yekini met a brick wall. The seeming lack of proper recognition from the society where he lived may have also contributed to him reclining further from the rest of the world to himself, where he thought in that way nobody could hurt him again, Spiff-Sagbamah added.
Although neighbours noted that he drove himself daily and continued his regular football training for years, Yekini battled his personal torments alone, sank further into the abyss of dejection and self-imposed isolation that even concerned friends and family members spoke of their frustration at trying to help him integrate back to normal life. Mutiu Adepoju, Yekini’s Eagles teammate and close friend, said that much. “He never reached out to people; he was living an isolated life. Quite a number of times, people have called me to inquire about him and I always gave them his number and they reached out to him as well. But he never came out to tell anybody what he wanted or needed. So I won’t be able to say that nothing was done for him or that they didn’t do enough for him. It’s one thing for somebody to say oh, I need help or reach out to people, and another thing for people to help him. He never reached out and when people wanted to reach out to him, he never gave them the opportunity to,” Adepoju told the magazine in a voice laden with sadness. “After football, you don’t have anything pensionable, an enlightenment and sensitisation should be done. The transition is very difficult. So footballers have to learn as much as possible to think about their future after football and the authorities should also help to channel them to do meaningful things afterwards,” Adepoju advised.
The need to help ex-footballers like Yekini, with little education, properly manage their lives after the game was the more reason Seun Omotayo, a professor in the Department of Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Sports, University of Education, Winneba, Ghana, proposed a rehabilitation programme for the late striker. This was after Spiff-Sagbamah had also got in touch with him. “I am deeply concerned about this news and situation (of Yekini) as a trained sports psychologist. There are records of retired athletes that go into depression for so many reasons which include but not limited to poor management of life while in active sports and sudden loss of recognition. In any of such case(s) the first approach is to apply the Significant Other Therapy,” wrote Omotayo in his letter of appeal for assistance on professional management for Yekini in late 2010. It was addressed to Governor Babatunde Fashola of Lagos, who had expressed his willingness to assist the late football legend.
The therapy was a psychological management programme which would have included a five-day planned visit of Yekini to the National Sports College, Winneba, Ghana, where he would have been administered the adrenal burnout (fatigue) intervention programme to help him reintegrate into normal life. If Omotayo’s programme had seen the light of the day, Yekini would have also have had the opportunity to address the kids in the soccer academy, play an exhibition match with students in the school’s Department of Physical Health Education, Recreation and Sports. Sadly though, Yekini reportedly refused. “He turned it down and at that time, his family was hiding him,” recalled Spiff-Sagbamah, who had travelled to Ibadan to see Yekini.
For many, it is believed that Yekini’s reclusive lifestyle may have been caused by several factors, including the assertion that he was not able to deal with the aftermath of repeated failed marriages, his fade away from the limelight and lack of recognition from the public after retiring from international and club football, as well as personal, business and family issues. Also, Yekini’s downturn into deeper isolation was said to have been compounded with the loss of a huge sum of money when his bosom friend and business partner, Ibraheem, was robbed and killed. Ibraheem, who ran a bureau de change in the Sabo Area of Ibadan, was said to have been the custodian of a large chunk of Yekini’s money with which he traded.
That incident, some said, buried Yekini further into the abyss of depression and isolation from which he never recovered. For years, he also stayed away from his family who were based in Kwara State. “None of the individuals showed any concern towards helping my late husband, and that was why the family came to his rescue, even though their efforts still failed to save his life,” lamented Adeola, one of the former wives of the late footballer.
Although exact details of the last days of his Eagles’ career are still unclear, it was rumoured that Yekini felt betrayed by some of his teammates who were said to have ganged up against him for being the one who scored most of the goals and received all the recognition. He was the first Nigerian to win the coveted African Footballer of the Year in 1993. That he was gradually starved out of regular position in the national team, as balls were not being fed to him as the main striker.
But this is an allegation that Adepoju, who played with Yekini, swiftly disputed. “There was nothing like that. The players didn’t gang up against Yekini. He was our best (goal) scorer then and there was cooperation in the team. I was very close to him, as far as I’m concerned, there was nothing like that,” Adepoju said.
Despite his isolated lifestyle and rumours about his mental state of health, neighbours told of how Yekini exercised and some of them joined him in his daily jogs from Mobil Filling Station down to the Liberty Stadium, Ibadan, where he regularly trained. “Some people didn’t understand the guy because he only went alone. If you greeted him, he answered if he wanted to; if he didn’t, he just went on his own way. Yekini was a gentle, go easy man, he [was] a giver. He didn’t have quarrel with anybody. He gave alms to beggars and didn’t like people publicising his benevolence,” said Nufiu Isiaka, a neighbour who said he was one-time special assistant to Governor Rasheed Ladoja on youth matters.
Kunle Michael, another of Yekini’s neighbour, whose wife has a provision store on the same street, also agreed that loneliness and neglect were factors that contributed to the football legend’s demise. “He was cheerful, gave people money and paid school fees of less privileged children. Loneliness can lead to anything, that was what really happened,” Michael said. Yomi Ojo, who lives in the same vicinity, said Yekini regularly paid his neighbourhood security levy many months in advance and also attended the landlord association meetings. “He was just a loner and had hot temper. Even the white men can do what Yekini did, they also used to be lonely and sometimes don’t interact with people or their family. Rashidi never pursued anybody one day or showed funny character, how can they say he was ‘mental’?” asked Ojo who noted that Yekini renovated his house a few years ago in preparation for his first daughter’s visit from the US, which never happened.
Michael added: “The federal government should investigate the cause of his death and arrest the alfas that came to take him away. His family betrayed him and we don’t want to see them here. For Ojo, he felt they could have changed his life without taking him away, “because he was very healthy. They can take the property, (it) is their own, but that man was our brother… we are hurt.” He also told the magazine a story of how the late footballer once bought a truck of pure water and asked the driver to take it to a motherless babies’ home.
A hairdresser around Yekini’s neighbourhood, who preferred to remain anonymous, also recounted how Yekini (whom she addressed as Alhaji) used to visit her salon some four years ago to have his hair cut and how he regularly gave her ileya (Muslim Sallah festival) meat. She also remembered giving him a Christian tract in January during one of her evangelism walks. “I told him that the world would soon come to an end, that he should read the tract. The next thing he did was hand me N1,000. He promised to read it and drove off,” she said.
Besides the outpouring of emotions from across the country and worldwide, the Confederation of African Football, CAF, and world football governing body, FIFA, also sent condolence letters to the NFF over the death of Yekini. Nigeria’s finest football striker ever, his record of 37 goals in 58 matches for the Super Eagles remains unsurpassed.