Thursday, 10 May 2012

Rashidi Yekini: The man whose smile lit up a world cup but who was tormented by depression

The world cup in 1994 was one which threatened to be the most disappointing on record.

England had failed to qualify while for many, the prospect of the Beautiful Game being given an American make over did little other than fill football purists with dread.

However, that all changed in one magical moment.

On June 21, in Dallas’ Cotton Bowl Stadium, Nigeria took on Bulgaria - a team which would later own the Germans in one of the competition’s finest ever upsets - and won 3v0.

And as well as serving up the sort of result which went some way to announcing the Super Eagles onto the world stage, the match-up provided USA 94 with its iconic image - and one which would become every bit as indelible as Gazza’s tears in Italia 90 or Banks’ save in 1970.

Running on to a pass from Finidi George, Rashidi Yekini tapped in what was his country’s first ever goal at a World Cup.

Standing resplendent in the sort of shirt which would not have looked out of place on the back of Nelson Mandela during a state visit, the stage was Yekini’s to do with what he wanted.

Carrying his run into the back of the net, Yekini put his arms through the twine like a frustrated Gladiator contestant tackling the Eliminator. He looked up, fists clenched, and scream his own name to the heavens. “Rashidi Yekini, Nigeria,” he bellowed. If the subsequent photographs which captured the outpouring made him look like a caged goal-grabber, the reality was the exact opposite. This was a player, a county and a continent finally releasing their potential onto football’s biggest stage.

Ignore Cameroon’s relative success in Italia 90. This was the moment when football was forced to wake up and take Africa seriously and it was also the moment when the football purists were reminded just why we love the game so much. It is about being lost in the joy of a single moment. A moment when all the trimmings of a billion dollar sport are stripped away to one man, one moment of skill and one release of euphoria.

The next morning, a thousand schoolchildren recreated the celebration. Most without a net to aid them.

Brazil would go on to claim the main prize, somehow managing to leave the neutral feeling sorry for the ultra defensive Italians - no longer the bogeymen when facing off against a Dunga ‘inspired’ Brazil.

But for many, the moment which still lives on in the memory is not the image of the South Americans lifting the trophy. It isn’t even the penalty miss by Roberto Baggio. No. For more football purists, the one defining moment from USA 94 was when a Nigerian stopped being a footballer plying his trade on the world stage and, for a split second, became someone who just loved the game and revelled in where it had taken him.

Tragically though, for someone who had spread such joy, Yekini spent much of his life struggling against the demons of depression.

His death earlier this week at the age of 48 was appalling premature.

The first Nigerian to play in the top leagues of Europe, Yekini may not have had the outrageous skill of Jay Jay Okocha or the lazy flair of Kanu, but he was a trailblazer. He was the first.

He was also the first Nigerian to win African Footballer of the Year and ended up with a trophy room full of prizes as well as 37 goals in 58 international caps.

But, by the time he died, most of his awards had been burned. His money given away and his mind very much in troubled turmoil.

The exact details of his death have yet to emerge, but an account from his sister which emerged in Nigeria this week made for harrowing reading.

Rafiat Adetunji revealed, “At a point he gathered all his awards, certificates, and clothes and burnt everything. Even the time we went to pick him to go to hospital, there was only one cloth in his house. He had burnt everything.

“When we took him to the hospital, about four weeks ago, not only was he mentally unstable, he was also sick. We did not have money to treat him so we went to the banks where he had an account but unfortunately, the bank said he had no more money in his account.”

His money, it seems, had been given away. Yekini, according to his sister, had developed a hugely generous streak in the weeks leading up to his death.

Adetunji said, “We got information that Yekini went to the bank and withdrew some large sums of money, gave out some to people and spread the rest into the air. We also heard that sometimes he would go to the Liberty Stadium and be clearing grasses.

“In an attempt to get legal backing so that we could treat him, we also went to court. It was in 2010 that we went to the police and the court. But Yekini said he was alright and so the court could not help either.

“Even when former governor of Kwara State, Bukola Saraki wanted to give him an award, he said he was not interested. My younger brother later went on Yekini’s behalf to collect the award.”

His sister was not alone in noticed Yekini’s strange behaviour. His mother, Sikirat, said it had started five years ago but that every attempt to help him by her or her family had failed.

Speaking to local press in Africa, she said, “My son was a very compassionate person who tried his best to keep me comfortable.

“He also was of great assistance to his siblings before the surprising ill health.”

Yekini, it seemed, lived a life of near solitude in the run-up to his death. The thought of someone responsible for such joy in his native land could be left feeling so alone and despondent by a mental illness is as heartbreaking as it is cautionary.

Perhaps the only other World Cup celebration to rival Yekini’s was that of Marco Tardelli.

Having notched the second of Italy’s goals in the 1982 final he sprinted towards his team’s bench, tears flooding from his eyes, fists clenched and head shaking wildly.

If that was the perfect illustration of the pressure on footballers in the modern era then Yekini’s celebration against the Bulgarians is surely a glimpse back into the sport’s childlike soul and a reminder as to why we all love the game so much.

Rashidi Yekini. May he rest in peace.

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