Yakubu Aiyegbeni: The Yak Bows Out

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Yakubu Aiyegbeni is Nigeria’s third highest goal scorer, with 21 goals from 57 appearances and the second African Premier League top scorer with 96 goals. Those are credentials the former Everton of England striker holds in high esteem. As he quits the game that brought him fortune and fame, two events in his career would linger in the minds of football fans for as long as his name is mentioned- his miss against South Korea in the last group game of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, which denied the Super Eagles an opportunity to progress to the second round of the competition and the controversies about his real age, Kunle Adewale writes

Yakubu Aiyegbeni retired from football last Wednesday, which is his 35th birthday. He said, “I would like to officially announce my retirement from professional football today. I would like to thank God for the career I had. I would like to thank the entire Nigeria Football Federation and my national teammates for the memorable years I had playing for the Super Eagles. I would also like to thank all the clubs I played for. The managers, owners, fellow players and my dearest family and friends who immensely supported me throughout my career.”

As he says goodbye to the round leather game, his 2010 World Cup miss and his true age will continue to be subjects of discussions for a long while.

Former England international, Alan Shearer described Yakubu Aiyegbeni’s goal bound miss against South Korea at the 2010 World Cup as “the greatest miss in football history”, though the culprit does not see it as something out of this world in as much as he regretted missing the goal.

“No striker love to miss a goal; it is the joy of every player to score because it does not only bring excitement to the player, it changes the atmosphere at the stadium, everybody get ecstatic, more especially when it is a goal that determines the fate of his side. Of course, I felt sad when I missed the chance against South Korea because I knew what the goal could have meant to Nigeria, but that is football and I would not kill myself for missing a goal,” Aiyegbeni told THISDAY.

He said further, “Most great players in the world, including legends like Pele and Diego Maradona have missed greater chances during their football career despite having scored memorable goal and I’m no exception. After all, I’m human too. A very good example is Ghanaian striker, Asamoah Gyan, who despite almost single handedly taking the Black Stars to the quarter finals of the 2010 World Cup with his fantastic goal against United States in the second round of the competition, but when it came to the crunch in the last-eight against Uruguay, he lost a penalty that would have rewritten African history in the World Cup. He felt bad to let his country down when it mattered most but he did not kill himself and he has since been forgiven by Ghanaians. He’s still idolised back home in his native country. So, I expected the same consideration to be extended to me by Nigerian fans.”

Asked how he was able to get over the ordeal of missing such a great opportunity after Nigeria’s exit at the Mundial, Aiyegbeni said: “I knew how passionate Nigerians are about football and I could understand their feelings, but thank God for my family, especially my wife for standing by me and made me realise that it was not the end of the world. Though, I must confess it was not the best of time for me, but then this world is full of ups and downs. I also took consolation in the fact that great players have had their down sides too and they managed it.”

Aiyegbeni’s next game in front of Nigerian fans after the South Africa ordeal was at the Teslim Balogun Stadium, Lagos when he starred for the Eagles during the Nwankwo Kanu testimonial match and every of his moves were jeered by fans whose memory of his miss against Korea lingered.

“I was not surprised at their jeering, I understand Nigerian fans very well and I knew what to expect. It’s just a matter of time before they would forgive and forget and start remembering some of the great goals I have scored for the national team. After all, I have appealed to them and begged for forgiveness on different occasions. John Terry suffered similar fate in England, when he was booed at every stadium in England, but with time he was forgiven,” Yakubull had said then.

On how he was able to play for so long, Aiyegbeni said: “I believe in longevity as far as the game of football is concerned and I have a lot of players I looked up to that played for longer years, so, I played as far as my bones could carry me.”

In 2008, former Everton Coach, David Moyes caused a stir when he questioned the true age of Ayegbeni and of Nigerian players in general, when he said, “He’s only 25, albeit a Nigerian 25, and so if that is his age he’s still got a good few years ahead of him.”

The Nigeria Football Association (as the country’s football body was known then) wrote to the English FA asking for Everton manager to be sanctioned.

It is a well-known story in football circle how Osaze Odemwinge’s father, who was the doctor of Bendel Insurance while Aiyegbeni was at the club, will take young Osaze to watch Aiyegbeni and teammates train at the Ogbe Stadium.

It, however, remains a mystery that while both of them were in the Super Eagles team to the 2014 edition of the Africa Cup of Nation, Aiyegbeni was the younger of the two.

Starting his professional career on the local scene with Julius Berger FC of Lagos in 1997, the Yak moved to Maccabi Haifa in 1998 and it was here his reputation for scoring goals came to the fore as he registered 24 league goals in 49 appearances for the Israeli outfit.

Aiyegbeni made a bigger name for himself during the 2002/2003 Uefa Champions League season where he banged in a hat-trick in a 3-0 triumph over Olympiakos, and also scored from the spot in another 3-0 victory over heavyweights Manchester United.

Portsmouth took him on loan in January 2003 and he was an instant hit, scoring seven goals in 13 games as Pompey gained promotion to the Premier League.

His move was made permanent that summer and the Nigerian would go on to become a household name in the English top flight. Over the course of spells with Portsmouth, Middlesbrough, Everton and Blackburn Rovers, Aiyegbeni scored 96 Premier League goals, the second highest African after Didier Drogba’s 104 strikes.

He scored a total of 119 goals in English football, playing for seven different clubs.

Aside from his successful stint in England, Yakubu plied his trade in the Chinese Super League with Guangzhou R&F FC between 2012 and 2013, scoring 24 goals in 43 appearances. Some of his less successful spells came with Qatari club Al-Rayyan and Turkish Super Lig side Kayserispor, but at this stage, his prolific career was coming to an end.