When names of some of Africa’s greatest strikers are mentioned, the likes of Roger Milla, George Weah, Abedi ‘Pele’ Ayew and Nigeria’s Rashidi Yekini come to mind. These men thrived in the 80s and 90s, demonstrating considerable attacking prowess and terrorising Africa’s defences. In the 21st century, Didier Drogba, Samuel Eto’o and Asamoah Gyan are among the continent’s top picks, but Yakubu Aiyegbeni also deserves consideration among these all-time classic African hotshots.
The widely travelled forward has confirmed his retirement at the age of 35, and his is a career worth celebrating.
His performances in the 2002–03 UEFA Champions League for Maccabi Haifa earned a loan move to English club Portsmouth which became permanent as they were promoted to the Premier League in 2003. He has since appeared in over 250 Premier League matches for Portsmouth, Middlesbrough, Everton, and Blackburn Rovers, and is the second highest African goalscorer in Premier League history with 96 goals. He is the third highest scorer in the history of the Nigeria national football team, and represented them at four African Cup of Nations finals, the 2010 FIFA World Cup and the football at the 2000 Summer Olympics.
Yakubu was born in Edo state, Benin city. He started his football career in Julius Berger FC a Nigerian club. He was later loaned to Gil Vicente a Portuguese team. His career took him next to Maccabi Haifa. He was bought for $300,000. His highest scoring season was in 2001-2002, when he scored 13 goals in 22 matches. He then moved to England to train with Derby County but could not obtain a work permit. He was later loaned to Hapoel Kfar Saba and Portsmouth whe he had 23 and 13 appearances respectively, scoring 6 and 7 goals respectively.
In 2003 – 2005 he moved to Portsmouth of the First Division, signed by Harry Redknapp, he made his loan move parmanent for a fee of £4 million.
Yakubu’s 16 goals made him the club’s leading goal-scorer, and joint-sixth highest scorer in the entire league. Yakubu ended the season with 11 goals in his last 10 Premier League matches, starting with one each in four straight games, the first being the only goal in the South Coast derby versus Southampton on 21 March.
After the 2004–05 season, he transferred from Portsmouth to Middlesbrough for a £7.5 million record fee, the highest for a Nigerian ever. Yakubu scored the only goal of the game with a penalty in the first leg of the UEFA Cup last 16 round at home against Roma, giving Middlesbrough a 1–0 victory, who later went through on away goals. His performances were rewarded, as he helped Middlesbrough reach the 2006 UEFA Cup Final against Sevilla, in which they lost 4–0.
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.
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. One of Yakubu’s qualities, something which not all of Africa’s top hitmen have managed, is to demonstrate his goalscoring form both at club and international level.
His form in front of goal in the Premier League was translated to his Super Eagles career, where he scored 21 goals in 57 appearances at a ratio of 0.36 goals per game, making him the third highest Nigeria goalscorer in history behind Yekini and Segun Odegbami.
One of Aiyegbeni’s worst days as a player came in the 2010 Fifa World Cup in South Africa when he missed a sitter from six yards in the final Group B game against South Korea.
It was a game Nigeria needed to win to stand any slim chance of qualifying for the last 16, having lost to Argentina and Greece already.
Although he scored from the spot to level things up at 2-2, his miss remains unforgivable among Nigerian fans to date, and he continues to be a subject of bantering.
During the 2004 Africa Cup of Nations, he, along with Victor Agali and Celestine Babayaro, were sent home for indiscipline. Aiyegbeni refused to play at the 2006 edition of the competition, and while this irked Nigerian supporters, his then club – Middlesbrough – praised him for his decision.