The death of the former Nigeria striker Rashidi Yekini remains shrouded in mystery
Yemisi Yekini has a couple of overwhelming memories of her father. The first she makes sure to hold close every day. She wasn’t yet a teenager but it’s the simplicity of a stroll in the dense heat of a west Nigerian night, just her and him as they went to buy some spicy meat and sugar cane from a nearby market in Ibadan and shot the breeze along the way. “Everyone was saying hello to him and he was joking with me about things and it was just so lovely. I felt so close to him and felt so much love for him and I’ll have that with me forever,” she recalled.
The other recollection she can never shed no matter how hard she tries. It’s from a week after his funeral in the tiny village of Irra as – after travelling from London where she was born, raised and still lives – for the first time she laid eyes on his resting place in front of her grandmother’s house. “The spot they buried him, it’s so horrible,” she said. “I mean, it’s really horrible. When I was there it was just cement poured on top of him. I try to forget that and remember how he loved African movies and crime films and CSI and I remember being in his house watching those with him. But how can I forget what happened then? How can I ever forget it?”
Twenty years ago Rashidi Yekini gave us one of the most iconic images of the 1994 World Cup. His goal in the rout of Bulgaria was his country’s first ever in the tournament and the emotion of the moment poured out across television screens around the globe as he stood entangled in the back of the net screaming. But in May of 2012 some reports say he died screaming in a traditional healing home, tied to the floor. His family in Nigeria are adamant he was suffering from mental health problems and they tried to intervene, but his friends and local police say he had a restraining order against them and that his family kidnapped him shortly before his death.
It was a bizarre, mysterious and shocking end to a life of noisy and historical highs entangled with the echoes of lonely lows. But if his death was incomprehensible by any standards, his life was unlikely considering his boyhood standards. He had little chance to be a somebody but he fought ferociously against nature and nurture as his close friend and barrister Jibril Mohammed recalled. “He lost his father when he was six or seven so he grew up with an uncle who was very, very mean to him. That left him with no one to look up to and he was bullied by that uncle and that shaped his personality a lot. His uncle chained him up, beat him and because of that he had problems trusting people. The only thing he had from his Dad was a portable radio which he used to listen to football matches on. But his uncle broke that radio so he got up at that moment and ran away from home.”
Yekini was only 10 when he fled. He got by on the few coins he earned by washing boots and doing odd jobs for footballers at a nearby club. But other players weren’t as accommodating once he started out on his own journey within the sport. As a striker with Africa Sports in Côte d’Ivoire in the 1980s, his trust issues continued to stalk him after he let a friend stay in his house only to discover afterwards the cash he was saving in his room had vanished while the friend had coincidentally just bought a new car. “He was a very shy person because of his background and throughout his life he grew very suspicious of people because of the way he grew up,” said Mohammed. “That’s why he kept to himself and people wrongly saw him as reclusive.”
His brief marriage collapsed as he and his wife returned home apart from their honeymoon and separated. “What I gathered was when they got there he discovered that she had an ex-boyfriend and he was really not happy and had to break up with her,” said Mohammed. But if his life off the field was turbulent, his life on it was tumultuous. Having scored 45 goals in 53 outings for Shooting Stars, he was just as astounding in Europe. Between 1990 and 1994 he hit 90 goals in 108 games for Vitória Setúbal before setting the World Cup ablaze.
“He was a very gentle and a very jovial person, he would make you laugh a lot at training and during matches,” said his international teammate Mutiu Adepoju. “We all remember that goal but prior to the World Cup he won the African Nations Cup. The way he scored goals was fantastic and he is our record goalscorer which sums up his efforts. But you saw the emotion when he got that goal against Bulgaria, what it meant to him and of course he’s always been proud to represent Nigeria. That celebration just showed what his country meant to him. He knew his country loved football and everyone in his country knew he loved them.”
By the end, though, you got the sense that same country had abandoned him after the final whistle had sounded.
Yemisi Yekini had always suspected her real father lived elsewhere and it was on a trip to Nigeria a decade ago that her mother told the then 19 year old she was going to introduce her to her birth father. Asked about her emotions, she smiled. “Spending a couple of days with a man I’d never met and didn’t know – well, I was terrified and didn’t know what it would be like.” She didn’t know anything about Rashidi either and the name didn’t set bells ringing as it would have with most football fans. However, the trophies dotted around the shelves and cabinets of his house prompted questions and pretty soon she was watching YouTube clips of him open-mouthed.
“I was so proud,” she continued. “We sat down and he told me everything. About the break-up, about his time in Portugal, about his goals, about the World Cup. But I didn’t see him as this superstar because he was so humble. OK, his house was big but there was nothing fancy about it. And not many people would come to visit him. There was one Muslim priest that he’d talk to but not much more than that. Everyone knew him there so it didn’t seem like he was a big deal because everyone would say hello on the street and that’s just how it was. They were used to seeing him walking around and he just quietly fitted in there.”
On that trip she met her paternal grandmother as well: “She nearly died. They were like, ‘Come here, is it really you?’” But after she’d returned to London, the situation in Nigeria slowly changed. “He was close with his family,” said Mohammed. “In fact, he spent half of his fortune on his family. He opened a supermarket for his sister, for his younger brother he bought so many things, he bought his mother a two-storey building, for another one of his brothers he sponsored a trip to Côte d’Ivoire because he was a fine footballer. But Rashidi told me his change in attitude towards his siblings and mother was because they were concerned about his wealth and nothing more.
“That main problem started back as far as 2009. Plus, he was mad with his mother when she harboured a lady who claimed to have a baby for him. He was furious about that. Matters deteriorated from there. That hurt him a lot. He was seeking traditional solutions to those problems and met one or two people who were telling him to make sacrifices and that would appease God, like buy a ham and give it to a blind man and this kind of thing. But a lot of people misunderstood his personality. He was a very generous person and he was sponsoring people for education and was feeding homeless people. He never told anyone about it but word would get out about his charity and people thought that was strange and that there must be something odd about him.”
Others have since suggested that he wasn’t merely different but sick. Neighbours were quoted in Nigerian newspapers stating that he would wander aimlessly in the town, that his cars were in a state of disrepair to the point of being useless, that he was seen going to the toilet in a ditch, that he sacked his security guard and lived alone with a flock of peacocks and that his only company was the Champions League matches he’d watch on his own after firing up a generator outside his house. Another noted, “There was a time one of his younger brothers came from Kaduna or somewhere in the north, but because he was not expected, he was not allowed in. The guy slept outside and went back the following morning.” Such tales led to claims ranging from depression to bipolar disorder and everything in between.
“No, no, he was fine,” his daughter insisted. “Really, he was fine. When he called me he was perfect, usually every Sunday. He’d even talk to my Mum and tell her to get him some football gear because she’d travel from London quite a lot. He’d tell her, ‘You know my favourite colour already so get me this and that.’” This is a view backed up by others. “Rashidi was very, very well towards the end of his life,” said Mohammed. “He had a physician attend to his health and there was nothing wrong. But the money thing, everyone knows his family were greedy and it was a major problem.
“When his family were coming too much he felt he needed protection from the police to keep them away. I assisted him and we went to the commissioner of the police for the state and they asked what he was going through and why he needed protection. After that, the police called his family and they received a caution. The commissioner said they must respect his privacy as those were his wishes. But they couldn’t control their greed. When he was giving them money, they didn’t stop him. When he gave his money to people they thought didn’t merit it, they couldn’t handle that.”
Yekini’s mother, Alhaja Sikiratu, rejects the accusation. “We have been on the problem since 2010 and we tried our best but my son refused to be taken care of,” she said. “When he came back, we asked him why he had done what he did but he replied by burning all his belongings. I lost my husband in 1978 and Rashidi has been with me since then.”
Whatever the precise cause, turmoil in the family marked the beginning of his end.
The screensaver on the mobile phone of Mutiu Adepoju is a shot of Yekini from a time when the world was theirs. He says he’ll keep it there forever because the past is all that can soothe the present. “I heard his family kidnapped him, that he had restraining orders against him,” he said. “They came and took him because he was having mental problems but no one has ever confirmed that, it was just said a lot. And of course it’s a mystery how he died, because nobody knew where they took him or what they did and nobody has put together a picture of what really happened.”
Some facts that are known. When returning to his house from the regular training he did in the local stadium to stay in shape after his playing days were over, he got out of his car and went to unlock the gates of his compound. It was then that family members surprised him, placing him in shackles and dragging him into a nearby van. “When they came he was shouting that he wanted to be protected but nobody cared,” said Mohammed.
A few days later, the phones of those closest to Rashidi Yekini began to ring. In London, Yemisi Yekini got a call from her aunt and was asked to come to the house. “I couldn’t believe it,” she said. “It just wasn’t right, there were no answers, nothing. He didn’t call as much as he used to and I was thinking about that afterwards. I should have known. But maybe I didn’t talk to him as much as I should. Why didn’t I call him? I blame myself for that every day. I was thinking he’s my dad, he’s a hero, he’ll live forever. But I should have known something was wrong and made a call and helped him.”
Back in Ibadan, Jibril Mohammed picked up the phone to news he refused to believe. “I said that could not be true, because I’d be one of the first to hear. I was asking where, when, how? I was told the burial would commence before dawn and he was buried without any inquiry, without any inquest, without any answers. He died of cardiac shock, the report said, but he had no history of any problem. It makes you wonder how that came about. When someone dies in mysterious circumstances there must be an inquest. That didn’t happen because nobody cared. I did everything in my power but no one wanted to ask questions. He did so much for this country and it forgot him then.
“Who handled him when he was dying, who treated him, what did they treat him for, what drugs were they administering? And the real question is where did he die? He was taken to a home and was chained to the ground, he was chained to the floor. This man was chained to the floor in a traditional healing home. He died and his family took him straight to his home town and by the following morning he was buried by 10. I requested it be postponed so any inquest could be made into his death but nobody cared. His family came to take him away and he died in their hands.”
Nearby, Mutiu Adepoju broke down when he heard of the death of the man he shared his greatest moments with two decades before: “Just complete shock when the words were said to me. I couldn’t sleep. And unfortunately for some months before he died we were not able to talk with him, he was not able to be contacted. He seemed to withdraw further and further, even when you call him he would never pick up calls. You are left with this empty feeling. It’s horrible.”
At the burial Mohammed was furious with the family and told Yekini’s mother she should be remorseful and not give interviews to media while showing so little regret. “I thought there was something fishy because of her reaction,” he said. “She refused to tell me about the traditional home, she refused to tell anyone that. She just kept saying he died and that’s all.”
But when Yemisi made it to the ceremony to mark a week after the burial, she dared not even raise the issue. “When I went, there was this massive meal and his family were all claiming money,” she said. “They can have it, I don’t care about that, but it was so awkward to be in the middle of them. He’s just buried and they are fighting over his money. Who does that? And I felt scared, kids in Africa, they can’t say anything. Especially in Nigeria, you have to be so careful. I had a security guard at the anniversary. I had to have a security guard with me for my protection – to see my dad’s grave. They say he was sick, but where are the records? There’s no proof, no death certificate, did he even see a doctor?
“Did anyone even see the body? He was buried under concrete so quickly, and his family there didn’t even call me and there are so many ways to call from Nigeria. But they didn’t even do that. I never even saw his body. All I kept thinking was my Dad is dead, my Dad is dead, my Dad is dead. And now the biggest thing is the lack of closure. None of it makes any sense. It’s all so wrong. He’s supposed to be this Nigerian superstar, he’s supposed to be this hero to people there, they are supposed to love him. I know it’s corrupt there but what happened is so disgusting. And what if…”
She paused for a moment before finishing the sentence. “What if it was his own family,” she cried. “It makes it so inhumane and makes my stomach feel sick. And honestly, I think that every day because it all comes back to money and I saw that after the funeral. And of course I look online and read reports in African papers saying he was tied and chained up and dragged from his house. And a week later he was dead. It hurts so much to read all of that. That pain won’t go away.”