IN A MOMENT OF SILENCE… PRAY FOR OKAFOR, YEKINI & OLIHA

 

Dedication to a fallen threesome. They died a year after one another. This article is dedicated to the glowing and sweet memories of the trio of Uche Okafor, Rashidi Yekini and Thompson Oliha, who died in 2011, 2012 and 2013 respectively, when the three of them received their final red cards and stopped playing soccer forever. May they rest in perfect peace.

last right for yekini

 

Uchechukwu Kizito Okafor (August 8, 1967- 6, January, 2011)

Uche Okafor, the first of the trio to die, was born on August 8, 1967 and died on 6 January 2011, in a controversial circumstance that is yet to be unraveled.

Okafor played every match of the Super Eagles team when Nigeria won the 1994 African Cup of Nations, but sustained an ankle injury shortly thereafter. He was part of the squad to the 1994 World Cup but did not get any playing time. He played 1 out of their 4 games in the 1998 World Cup, though, as well as at the 1988 Olympics.

Nigeria reached the second round of the World Cup in 1994, and again in 1998, with Okafor in the team both times. He didn’t play in 1994 but played in one match in the first round in 1998, a 3-1 loss to Paraguay after they had beaten Spain and Bulgaria. He didn’t play in the second-round loss to Denmark

“We are totally shocked by the news. Uche Okafor was a great player who represented his country at the highest level,” said Musa Amadu, Acting Secretary General of the Nigerian Football Federation

Okafor’s professional career began at defunct, the ACB of Lagos before he moved to Belgium where he played for Mechelen and Namur. He also played for clubs in France, Portugal and Israel. The late Nigerian footballer also played for Hannover 96, before ending his career at American Sporting Kansas City, formerly known as Kansas City Wizards. Okafor was with the Wizards from 1996 to 2000, playing in 119 regular-season games and seven major league soccer playoff games. His professional finale came on Oct. 15, 2000, when Kansas City beat the Chicago Fire for its only MLS Cup championship.

When Okafor retired before the 2001 season, he was one of only three Kansas City players to have competed every season since the Wizards’ inception in 1996.

Since retiring, Okafor remained part of the game off-field. According to a BBC report, Okafor was a representative of sports kit manufactures, NIKE before carving a niche for himself as a football analyst on the international scene.

Oliha Thompson

Okafor coached the Associated Soccer Group, a member of the North Texas Soccer Association. He was head coach for the 91 Gold Central boys team and the 93 HP Central boys team who played in the Plano Premier Select Soccer league.

Kerry Zavagnin, an assistant coach with Sporting Kansas City, (the Wizards changed their name in 2010), played with Okafor during Kansas City’s championship season. He said, “I’m shocked and saddened. “He was a great teammate and most important, he was certainly a great man. This is a sad loss for all of us.”

Okafor worked for American television station, ESPN two years before his untimely death, providing analysis of African soccer as an African football expert. His contract had been renewed a month before he died.

“We are deeply saddened by the news of Uche Okafor’s death,” the cable network said. “He was well-respected for his insightful analysis on ESPN Soccernet Press Pass. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family, friends and fans.”

Uche was found hanging in his house at Little Elm in the neighbourhood of Plano in Dallas, Texas, on the 6th of January, 2011. According to his wife, I left for work early as usual. He kissed me and said bye bye as usual. Later, he went to drop Tochukwu (their daughter) at school.That’s what he usually did. It was later in the day that somebody called to tell me that he was not taking his calls and when I called it was the same. I then ran home and on getting home I was calling daddy, daddy, nobody answered. I passed the living room and went to our bed room. He was not there. I went upstairs to find him hanging. I shouted. It was shocking and devastating. I have not been able to put it together. The police came and removed his body and took his mobile phone.

A preliminary report by the Dallas Little Elm Police ruled that the easy-going defender hanged himself. The Tarrant County Medical Examiner’s Office said Friday that he hanged himself in an upstairs hallway. Okafor’s family has rejected the suicide ruling of the Little Elm Police Department, suspecting foul play. However, it was later gathered that Uche was murdered but the person who murdered him and the reason behind it is yet to be uncovered.

Oliha’s coffin

His funeral was jointly put together by the Ministry of Sports, National Sports Commission and the Imo State Sports Council at the Dan Anyiam Stadium, Owerri, the Imo state capital on February 17, before he was committed to mother earth.

As the remains of former Super Eagles defender, Uche Okafor were committed to mother earth in his family home in EzeakpiUmuabaliUbomiri, near Owerri, Imo State, his former teammates, especially Austin ‘Jay Jay’ Okocha and current Eagles coach, Samson Siasia could not hold themselves as they wept bitterly at the funeral.

Rashidi Yekini (October 23, 1963- May 4, 2012)

Yekini was born in Kaduna.  After his career at UNTL Kaduna in 1981, he made a move to Shooting Stars Football Club, Ibadan, where he caught the attention of then big money spender, Abiola Babes. After three successful seasons with the Abeokuta team, he joined Africa Sports of Cote D’Ivoire, a move that attracted foreign scouts due to his goal scoring prowess.

Three years later, he moved to Europe, where he became an instant hit with Vitoria Setubal in Portugal. There, he experienced his most memorable years, no doubt he was the Portuguese league top scorer in his debut season. At Setubal, he scored an impressive 90 goals in 108 appearances, eventually becoming the first division’s top scorer in the 1993–94 season to help the Sadinos promote from the second level, and those performances earned him the title of African Footballer of the Year in 1993, the first ever from the nation.

the 1994 team bringing out the body of late Uche Okafor out of the ambulance

In 1994, Yekini moved to Greece where he played for Olympiacos but did not enjoy a successful run, quitting after four matches and scoring two goals because he couldn’t get along with teammates. His career never really got back on track, not even upon his return to his former club, Setubal, which happened after another unassuming spell; in the Spanish Liga side, Sporting Gijon.

He moved to FC Zurich in 1997, where he was capped 28 times and got 14 goals to his credit. He successively played with FC Zürich, Club AthlétiqueBizertin and Al-Shabab Riyadh, before rejoining Africa Sports of Cote d’Ivoire. In 2003, at 39, he returned to the Nigerian championship with Julius Berger FC.

A skilful player, Yekini led the attack line of the Super Eagles for many years, 14 years and eight months. In this time frame, he played 60 international games for the Super Eagles and scored 37 goals. Although he was said to be uncomfortable with stardom, he became a household name.

Whenever Rashidi Yekini stepped onto the pitch, one was confident that victory was almost certain for the Super Eagles as he spear-headed Nigeria’s attack line and was defenders’ nightmare, tormenting them with his blistering skills and power.

Blessed with the height of a giant, the fierceness of a rhinoceros and the agility of a lion, he tore opponents’ goal area apart with his blistering skills as goalkeepers would scamper at the sight of his foot which packed a missile. He not only scored goals whenever he liked, he scored them aplenty.

Super Eagle 1994 team

In 1994, Rashidi scored Nigeria’s first game at the World Cup. After getting the historic goal, he ran into the goal post, shook the net and screamed in great excitement. One couldn’t really get what he was saying.

At 31, Yekini was at his peak. He almost single-handled won Nigeria her second Africa Cup of Nations title in Tunisia, scooping in five goals to emerge top scorer. His best goal of that tournament was against Zaire, a volley that left the goalkeeper without any chance after a pass from Sunday Oliseh.

Rashidi’s life was totally and completely wrapped around football. All he wanted to do was play all day long. He loved the round leather game so much. The training ground was his world. On it he came alive and shone like a million stars.

Yekini was reported to be ill for an extended period of time. In 2011, news media in Nigeria began issuing reports of his failing health, and he was said to suffer from bipolar disorder, depression and some other undisclosed neurological condition. He died in Ibadan on 4 May 2012 at 48.

Yekini

One version of the stories about his death said he was mentally unstable and his family, in the quest for a cure from native/religious healers, fatally harmed him. This report was initially told by his neighbours and was later corroborated in a newspaper interview by his lawyer who said that Yekini was forcefully taken out of his house by people who claim to be “healers” and was kept under their watch for three weeks. As the story went, Yekini was held under certain dehumanising conditions. These do-gooders who wanted to cure him of his malady, perhaps, didn’t know their altruism bordered on criminality.

Another version had it that he was never insane, he merely suffered bouts of depression as a result of his financial losses. He was also anti-social, and that fuelled the rumour mill about his mental state.

Either Yekini actually had mental problems, or he was merely depressed, there is a lot about his death that didn’t look right. It is a shame that one year after his death, there has not been a conscientious effort to put a closure to the circumstances surrounding his death. His family members, in interviews, gave conflicting accounts of his mental state and the abduction that reportedly led to his death.

Rashidi was never a controversial person, kept camp rules, coaches’ favourite, and never asked from Nigeria except one thing and that was for his name to be spelt as Rasheed and not Rashidi but that was never granted, maybe in official record but not made known to the public. The whole world continues to know him as Rashidi till today.

Sunday Oliseh, former teammate and defensive midfielder, on his website, called Yekini “one of the best African players and legends to ever walk this earth.”

For many Nigerians, Rashidi Yekini was one of the notable figures that should be honoured with a state burial for his contribution to Nigeria’s football. If anyone deserves a state funeral, Rashidi Yekini is that person.

Rashidi Yekini

On October 23, 2013, FIFA President, Sepp Blatter paid a tribute to the great Super Eagles striker. ‘Rasheed Yekini would have been 50 today. His name as scorer of Nigeria’s first World Cup finals goal, lives on‘, Blatter wrote on his official Twitter page as he posted the very famous photo of Yekini celebrating Nigeria’s very first goal in group stage match played against Bulgaria at the USA ’94 finals.

Yekini, like others, did not receive the house the Nigerian government promised them after their 1994 conquest. In other words, he died not receiving the reward for his efforts to make Nigeria great.

Thompson Oliha (October 1968-June 30 2013)

Oliha, the third of the threesome, was born in October 1968 in Benin City and died last year. A retired Nigerian midfielder, Oliha played for clubs in Africa and Europe during a career marred by injury.

Thompson Oliha learnt his soccer skills on the streets of Benin City in the early 80`s and was a part of the Bendel state academicals team that won the Manuwa/Adebayo Cup bronze medal in 1984.

Naturally, he progressed to local giants, Bendel Insurance and it was here that his talents first came to light.

last red card of late Uche Okafor

By 1986, the young Oliha was part of the Flying Eagles team vying for a place at the Chile `87 World Youth championships, Oliha was a much more positive player in those days and he contributed three goals as the Flying Eagles zoomed to Chile as African champions. Despite the Flying Eagles shoddy showing, Oliha returned with his head held high and soon made his senior debut against Algeria in December 1987. Oliha played for Bendel Insurance between 1985 and 1987.

Oliha was among the players that represented Nigeria at the 1987 FIFA World Youth Championship in Chile. He then linked up with IwuanyanwuNationale (now Heartland Football Club of Owerri) in 1988, where he won two league titles in 1989 and 1990, scoring many vital goals from midfield. Back in the Eagles, Oliha was a member of the silver winning Nations Cup side of 1990 and would remain ever regular for two years despite the presence of foreign based stars.

In 1992, he joined Africa Sports on the Ivorien side, where he won the Cup Winners Cup and the African Super Cup.

After spending a year in the Ivorien league, Oliha moved to Israel where he signed for Maccabi Ironi Ashdod. In 1994-1995, he played for Antalyaspor of Turkey.

Thompson

As a player, he was known for his powerful shots and abilities in the air. Oliha also played in Israel and Turkey before he retired as a result of a serious knee injury.

Oliha died due to complications from malaria on June 30, 2013. He was said to have slumped in the toilet and the doctor said that his body was completely lifeless before his wife rushed him to hospital and there was nothing anybody could do to save him

Until his death, Oliha was the head coach of the Kwara Football Academy (KFA) in Ilorin, Kwara State.

He was even in charge of KFA’s 3-0 friendly win over a team from Mali at the Academy premises.

His former coach, Westernhof said this of him: “Thompson? He was one player you’d like to have in your team as a coach. A wonderful character, who was well loved by his teammates because of his jovial nature.

“There was never a dull moment with him as he cracked jokes at will. Whether playing or not, he was always happy. Thompson understood that only 11players can be at a time and never complained or caused trouble in camp.

Uche Okafor

“Some of his team-mates will attest to this. Even when we lost a game, he helped us douse the tension with his jokes. It was just fun having him around.

“He was a hardworking midfielder. One thing about Thompson as a player is the fact that he followed every instruction given him on the field of play. I remember bringing him against Italy at USA’94 and a lot of people criticised me for that.

“What they didn’t know was that I gave him a special job which he executed to the letter. I realised that we needed someone to stop the Italians in the middle after Emmanuel Amuneke and Daniel Amokachi got injured. We were leading 1-0 and we needed an attacking midfielder who could also play deep to stop the duo of Albertini and Massaro, that was why I brought him in and he did the job perfectly. We lost but he did a good job for the team.”

Memorial match was played in his honour by his colleagues led by Austin Eguavoen at the lying- in state at the Samuel Ogbemudia Stadium. The match played by Edo selected and some members of the 94-squad ended 1-1.

Also, in memory of his last place of work, the 94 squad and some ex-internationals were in Kwara Football Academy jersey while Edo selected were on Insurance Jersey. The body of late Thompson Oliha was finally laid to rest at his 3 Thompson Oliha Crescent, off Edo Street, Upper Sokponba Road, Benin City.

widow of late Uche Okafor and daughter

The Edo State governor, Comrade Adams Oshiomole, who spoke through the Commissioner for Youths and Sports, Lady OmoredeOsifo, in his remark, said the death of Oliha was such a big loss to the people of Edo state and Nigeria in general. The governor who donated two million to the two kids of Oliha promised that the state will be organizing a yearly youth’s football championship, to be called Thompson Oliha Soccer Championship.

Also, the government of Kwara State, represented by the State Director of Sports, Mallam Tunde Kazeem, gave Oliha’s children a sum of N1 million and expressed the feelings of the government and people of Kwara State over the death.

Uche Okafor

However, one of the wishes of Oliha before his death was for the Federal Government to fulfill the promise of a house General Sani Abacha promised the Super Eagles for winning the Tunisia 1994 Nations Cup. Sadly and unfortunately, he did not see that wish come true.

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