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Remembering Yekini vs Bulgaria 26 years on

11:00 BST 21/06/2020
Nigeria 94 - Rasheed Yekini
On this day in 1994, the legendary striker got Nigeria off the mark at the World Cup, and his celebration spawned one of the sport's iconic images

Rashidi Yekini's 37 goals in 58 appearances for the Nigeria national team remains a record to this day.

That collection runs the gamut from screamers to tap-ins, from finishes following bursts of speed in space to those featuring clever movement inside the penalty area.

However, picking the most iconic – and important – of the lot is surprisingly easy. Yekini roaring in the goal in 1994, his arms pushed through and clasping the net to his face, is one of the most visceral, stirring images in the history of the World Cup.

The celebration, and indeed some of the public conjecture and revelations of internal strife that have followed it ever since, have somewhat overshadowed the goal itself. In a way, it's almost incidental to the heft of the occasion.

There is also a tendency to remember the game on the whole differently. Playing against Bulgaria, the Super Eagles produced a sparkling debut, dismissing the Balkan nation by three unanswered goals and making their more savvy (at least by World Cup standards) opponents look like they were the novices.

Except it was simply not that straightforward.

By the time Yekini opened the scoring in the 21st minute, Nigeria had labored through an absolute wringer of an opening 10-15 minutes. Captain on the day Peter Rufai admitted the Bulgarians took advantage of the Super Eagles' initial caution, and he had to pull off a number of impressive saves to keep the score level until the African champions recovered their composure and, in his words, "took over the game".

Bulgaria also had the ball in the net 15 minutes after the Yekini's opener through Hristo Stoichkov's wicked effort, but the goal was ruled out as referee Rodrigo Badilla had signaled for an indirect free-kick, thereby sparing Nigeria's blushes. Six minutes later, the lead was doubled.

Back to the opening goal, however.

It all started, fairly innocuously enough, with an interception by left-back Ben Iroha just inside Nigeria's half on the left flank. Sunday Oliseh recovered the loose ball and played a pass into the feet of Daniel Amokachi, who poked it to Austin Eguavoen inside the centre-circle and continued running across the pitch.

The right-back played it into the feet of Amokachi, and the ball went out to Finidi George on the right. The Ajax man dragged the ball back infield, held off one opponent, skipped past another, and passed to Samson Siasia who, via a quick shuffle of the feet, shifted away from pressure and swept the ball back out to the right where Amokachi was now stationed.

The striker controlled the ball on his chest, took a touch infield, and then paused. That split second was enough for Finidi to start a run on the inside, bursting past the Bulgarian line of defence and into the space behind. Amokachi played him in, and the winger set off for the byline, holding off on the cross long enough for Yekini to arrive unmarked at the back post.

The ball across evaded the slide of the last defender, presenting the 'Goalsfather', as he was reverently known, with the simplest of finishes into an empty net.

Many have pointed out, in the 26 years since, the curiosity of no one going to celebrate with Yekini in the net. It is proof positive, the claim goes, that there were fissures in that team.

While no less a person than the late Stephen Keshi has confirmed that a significant number of the squad were indeed dissatisfied with his attitude toward the group, it feels like having the entire 11 swoop in on the Bulgarian goal would have made that image less powerful.

Instead of a mass of bodies, we got one man in the throes of a deep passion. There is still no consensus as to what exactly the words he mouthed were, but we understand him in a way that is difficult to relay in words.

That was the only goal Yekini managed in the USA in 1994. He assisted Siasia in the very next game against Argentina, but from him there was little else of note in the tournament. He notably missed an open goal against Italy in extra time in the Round of 16, but the manner of the miss itself just makes the point: he seemed oddly lethargic, almost sated.

He would only score one more goal for Nigeria, and that came four years later, in a friendly against Jamaica in preparation for the 1998 World Cup. That, however, was a shadow of the player: four years older, less explosive, and somewhat physically diminished.

This – his goal to claim an irrevocable piece of history, and the oddly euphoric celebration that followed – was the real good bye.