Senior Sports Editor
RASHIDI YEKINI won it all — the African Footballer of the Year award, the greatest Nigerian goal-scorer of all time and the first Super Eagle to score at the World Cup finals.
His goals powered his country to their first Nations Cup triumph in 14 years, at Tunisia ‘94, where he bagged the tournament’s Golden Ball and Golden Shoe awards, given to best player and top-scorer.
He remains just one of four African players, to win the Golden Boot in a European league, after his 21 goals during the 1993/1994 season for Vitória Setubal in Portugal.
“Rashidi Yekini was well into his 31st year when Nigeria arrived at the 1994 World Cup,’’ noted the British newspaper, The Guardian, in June 2014, to mark the 20th anniversary, of the golden moment, when Yekini scored the Super Eagles’ first World Cup goal.
“But, his career was at its zenith, he was the reigning African Footballer of the Year, had been top scorer and player of the tournament when Nigeria won the African Cup of Nations just two months earlier and, with eight in seven games, had scored nearly half his nation’s total tally of goals in qualifying for their first ever World Cup.
“He had also been the top goal-scorer in Portugal that season, the first Vitória Setubal player to win the Bola de Prata for half a century, and his personal life was just as successful, with his marriage set for later that summer.
“Yekini had forced his way from an apprenticeship, as a mechanic in Kaduna, to the pinnacle of the professional game, a tall, broad force of nature and spirit.’’
Yet, for none months, between December 1992 and September 1993, a 22-year-old Zimbabwean international forward went toe-to-toe with Yekini, in the battle for the top-scorer in Africa, during the ‘94 World Cup qualifiers.
His name is Agent Sawu.
In September, this year, he will celebrate his Golden Jubilee.
Three months earlier, his country would have started her 10th World Cup qualifying campaign, as an independent nation.
That would be Zimbabwe’s first World Cup group qualifiers in eight years, since a 1-1 home draw against Mozambique, on September 8, 2013, brought a fitting ending to a disastrous campaign.
To even get into these group matches, the Warriors had to qualify, beating Somalia, with two late goals from Knox Mutizwa and Khama Billiat, in Harare.
The Warriors finished bottom of their group, during the 2014 World Cup qualifiers, with just two points, 16 points adrift of group winners Egypt, who scored four goals in Harare, with Mohamed Salah hitting a superb hat-trick, in a 4-2 win for the Pharaohs.
That same Egyptian side would be hammered 6-1 in Kumasi by Ghana, in the final qualifiers, as if to remind us of how far we had drifted, from the real world.
Which, of course, wasn’t the case when Sawu and his teammates took four points from those Pharaohs, during the ‘94 World Cup qualifiers, before eventually falling, in the final qualifying match.
Sawu’s half-a-dozen goals, in 10 games, still represents the benchmark of excellence, in terms of the highest number of goals, scored by a Warrior, in a single World Cup qualifying campaign.
In fact, he actually scored seven, in 10 qualifiers, but his goal in Cairo, in that ill-fated qualifier, was nullified, together with the result, as FIFA ordered a replay, owing to crowd trouble.
Sawu scored in the 2-1 win over Egypt in Harare on December 20, 1992, in the 1-1 draw against Angola in Luanda, the 2-1 away win over Togo in Lome, the 2-1 home win over Angola, the 1-0 home win over Cameroon and the 1-0 home win over Guinea.
In the history of the World Cup qualifiers, no Warrior has ever touched those dizzy heights and, as his country prepares to celebrate her 41st Independence anniversary, in the very year he also marks his Golden Jubilee, Sawu remains a shining symbol of football greatness.
His Dream Team soared as high as 40th, on the world rankings, in April 1995, and were ranked the sixth most powerful national team, on the continent. With most of the focus on Peter Ndlovu, Sawu proved to be the team’s ultimate undercover agent.
And, it’s the quality of the exclusive company he kept, the only one who scored more, Yekini with his eight goals, and those who scored less, which makes Sawu’s heroics, in that campaign, very special.
Hossam Hassan, Egypt’s record goal scorer with 68 goals in 176 appearances, finished in joint sixth place, with four goals in those World Cup qualifiers.
A legend of the game, Hassan was named the greatest African footballer, in the 50 years of CAF’s existence, when the continental football governing body celebrated their Golden Jubilee in 2007.
Kalusha Bwalya, the only Southern African star to win the African Footballer of the Year, in 1988, also finished in sixth place, with four goals, in that World Cup qualifying campaign.
The Zambian legend was the first player, to be nominated for the FIFA World Player of the Year, while having played the entire year for a non-European club.
He finished 12th, the voting for the 1996 FIFA World Player of the Year, while playing his football in Mexico.
Abdelhafid Tasfout, a legendary Algerian forward and skipper, who holds the record for most goals scored for the Desert Foxes, finished in joint third place, with five goals, during the ‘94 World Cup qualifying campaign.
His 36 goals, in 80 international matches, remains the leading mark for goals scored by an Algerian, in international football.
During the 1995/1996 season, he helped AJ Auxerre win the League and Cup double in France.
Hossam Hassan, the leading goal-scorer for the Pharaohs of Egypt with 69 goals in 169 appearances, ended with four goals in that campaign, and so did Alphonse Tchami, the Cameroonian, who was good enough to play for Boca Juniors.
Aboubacar Titi Camara, who ended up playing for Liverpool, also ended with fewer goals, in that World Cup campaign, compared to Ajira, after getting half the number of goals the Warriors’ forward scored.
Francois Omam-Biyik, scorer of Cameroon’s famous winner over Diego Maradona’s Argentina, in the opening game of Italia ‘90 World Cup, scored just two goals, in the ‘94 World Cup qualifiers. Daniel Amockachi and Finidi George, who have bigger profiles on the continent than Sawu, also scored two goals apiece while Jay Jay Okocha, Abedi Pele and Tony Yeboah could only score one goal.
To put into context, for fans to really appreciate Sawu’s magical goal-scoring spree, during the ‘94 World Cup qualifiers, it’s worth pointing out that, during their last World Cup qualifiers, the Warriors scored just four goals, as a team.
Sawu, on his own, scored four goals, from the same number of matches, in the group games, before adding another two, in the final round of qualifiers.