Racing: Maradona meets the Bull of Kaduna: GROUP D: Rashidi Yekini leads the 'Super Eagles' into tonight's match with Argentina in Foxboro. Phil Shaw reports

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The Independent Online
RASHIDI

Yekini flew into the United States on a whinge and a prayer. A week into his country's first World Cup, the extraordinary principal striker of Nigeria's 'Super Eagles' appears to be concentrating on the calls for divine providence rather than his bent for blunt speaking.

In the past, Yekini has not been slow to criticise Clemens Westerhof, the Dutchman who has coached Nigeria for five years, over tactics and team selection. On the eve of the most important match in the 34-year history of Africa's most populous nation - tonight's collision with Group D favourites Argentina at Foxboro - he has evidently decided upon discretion.

Their uneasy alliance may well crack before the tournament ends. Yekini is a devout Muslim who does not touch alcohol and prays for the defenders on whose mistakes he preys. Westerhof is a kind of Malcolm Allison figure, never afraid to change a winning team, always ready with a one-liner and at ease amid copious quantities of what made Milwaukee famous.

For the moment, though, all is sweetness and light with Nigeria, who have been preparing for their date with Diego Maradona behind closed doors at a college in rural Massachusetts. The picture of Yekini standing in the net, celebrating his goal in the 3-0 defeat of Bulgaria in Dallas, went round the world, along with his tribute to the great playmaker in the sky. Westerhof, meanwhile, was looking ahead to more earthly matters.

The game against Argentina, who opened with a 4-0 rout of Greece, represents the greatest test both of his coaching acumen and Yekini's burgeoning reputation. Like Jack Charlton, Westerhof cultivates an easy-going persona. Witness his team-talk before the Bulgarian game: 'I told my boys: 'This is showtime. Go and show the world what you can do'.' When push comes to shove, however, Nigeria should have more to draw upon than mere showmanship.

The newly crowned African champions' squad bristles with top-level European experience. No fewer than 17 of the 22 live outside their own continent, in eight countries. One is Norwich's Efan Ekoku, who has been kept on the bench by Yekini's form. Another, Sunday Oliseh, 19, will shortly become the first Nigerian to play in Italy's Serie A, with Reggiana.

Yekini, who has spent four years in Portugal with Setubal, will also break new ground this autumn. When the draw placed Nigeria in the same section as Greece, national scouts were dispatched from Athens to watch him. The word went out, and pounds 800,000 took him to Olympiakos.

The US media have taken to Yekini. With his massive, muscular shoulders in a 6ft-plus, 13 1/2 - stone frame, he has the build of a gridiron running back even without the padding. Encapsulate that image in a nickname (television has dubbed him 'The Hulk' though at home he is 'The Bull of Kaduna'), throw in a rags-to- riches element (he left school at 14 to work in a factory yet now speaks English, French and Portuguese), and a star is born.

European eyes focus more on an unusual combination of size, speed, technique and strength in possession, topped off by the instincts of a serial scorer. Against Bulgaria he swept home the first goal, thus adding to eight he collected during qualifying plus a further five in the African Nations' Cup, before making the second for the impressive Daniel Amokachi.

But for the fact that he will be 30 in October, Yekini might have attracted Italian interest himself. While it may be a Catholic country, Roberto Baggio has not done too badly for a Buddhist. And where better for a forward who claims: 'Whenever I play, I ask God to help me score. I also say a special prayer for my opponents.'

Instead he will take his unorthodox blend to Greece, though one suspects there may be more scoring feats to come on the world stage first. His impact against Bulgaria prompted speculation here that he might even emulate Eusebio - a fellow African, born in Mozambique, who also made his name in Portugal - by becoming the competition's top scorer.

That seems premature, to say the least. Besides, Gabriel Batistuta has a head start with his hat- trick. The fascination of tonight's fixture lies as much in whether Nigeria can cope with Argentina's bold new attacking talents as in how Yekini fares against an ageing defence, who had a torrid time against the similarly powerful Faustino Asprilla during last year's Colombian debacle.

The former is Westerhof's department. Whereas the 1990 Cameroonians appeared to play largely off the cuff, Nigeria pulled eight men back behind the ball after going ahead on Tuesday and tried to hit the front two with long passes.

The tactics worked perfectly. Although Fifa statistics revealed 19 Bulgarian shots to Nigeria's 11, and seven saves from Peter Rufai against one by the losers' keeper, Nigeria always looked in control.

The opposition are stronger on this occasion and will be led by a player who, as England once learned, also invokes assistance from celestial sources. But these are inspirational times for the Nigerians. No sooner had they arrived from Texas than they were watching their compatriot, Hakeem Olajuwon, lead the Houston Rockets to victory over the New York Knicks in American basketball's curiously named World Finals.

The seven-footer's popularity in Nigeria apparently eclipses even that of Yekini. If Westerhof can again instil the discipline his team displayed in the Cotton Bowl, that situation may soon be rectified. Whatever their fate against Argentina, Nigeria will still have the world to play for.

(Photograph omitted)

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