32 players to watch, January 2010

Player To Watch #23: Yakubu Aiyegbeni

Number 23: Yakubu Aiyegbeni

Position: Center Forward

Country: Nigeria

Club Team: Everton FC, English Premier League

American Based Professional Athlete “Soulmate(s)”: Jerome Bettis Divided by Lendale White

In 1977, Pele, the greatest player in the history of football, predicted that an African nation would hoist the World Cup by 2002 (he actually said 2000 but that was in between Finals). He’s taken a great deal of heat for that comment but this summer represents a legitimate chance to see him not as a fool but a visionary. Joining his call for African triumph this summer are other legends of the game, including former Ghanan maestro Abedi Pele and former Liberian striker and three time African footballer of the year George Weah, who both note that results in international tournaments are improving for the continent, which is indicative of a breakthrough.

Given the poor showing by the host nation in the Confederations Cup, and the difficult task of dealing with France and Mexico in group play, many have pointed to the Ivory Coast as the architect of the breakthrough this summer. While I understand the new sentiments and feel that the top level talent on that squad may be the most great, a look at the draw makes Ivory Coast a weak choice and I believe puts the spotlight right back where it has always been, on the Super Eagles of Nigeria. Long regarded as the African side most likely to make the breakthrough, the Super Eagles of 2010 will take the field in South Africa with immense talent but without the baggage of immense expectation. After all, this is a side that needed a miracle finish to qualify. Needing six points and then needing Tunisia to drop six, the Super Eagles got it on the final day when they defeated Kenya 3-2 and Tunisia suffered a nothing short of shocking 1-0 defeat to Mozambique. At the front and center of the Nigerian qualification miracle? None other than Yakubu Aiyegbeni—known simply as Yakubu, whose 65th minute goal secured victory for the Nigerians in the final fixture.

As we head to World Cup 2010, Nigeria will look to an embarrassment of attacking riches to help propel it out of a difficult group that includes perennial power Argentina, 2002 semifinalists South Korea, and 2004 EURO Champions Greece.  Obafemi Martins of Wolfsburg FC and formerly of Newcastle fame is the secondary scoring option, but it is likely that Yakubu, known to Everton fans as “Yak,” will be the primary striker and if he can stay fit (more in a paragraph!!), the Eagles will be able to score on anyone they play. Keeping the ball out of the back of their net will as always be the primary concern, but the emergence of Chelsea man John Obi Mikel and the always steady captain, Joseph Yobo, at least give Nigeria world class talent with defensive nous. The draw is a tall order- but if healthy, who better to lead the charge than Yakubu, who at 27 is already the highest scoring player of African descent in the history of the English Premier League, having racked up 81 goals in a seven year England career. Yakubu has played and played well on all stages, scoring several UEFA goals in efforts for Portsmouth as well as Middlesbrough, and most recently scoring a critical equalizer for Everton at Stamford Bridge just weeks removed from the injury table.

Powerful and pacy, there are never questions about Yakubu’s skill. At six feet and around 85 stone—he’s a freakishly strong and chiseled finisher who often overpowers defenders, much like the first soulmate, Jerome Bettis did in a long and illustrious career with the Pittsburgh Steelers. He’s cocky and self-assured, as Bettis was, once predicting he’d score 22 goals in his first year @ Goodison, the number of goals matching his choice of kit number. These skills represent the upside of a man who is still the second largest signing fee acquisition in the history of Everton FC after an 11.25 million pound transfer from Boro in 2007. Seems like a sure bet, then, doesn’t he?

As Lee Corso would say—“Not so fast, my friend.” Yakubu isn’t exactly Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In those stories you knew you would see one version and you knew you would see the other. Yak fans would love to be self-assured by that level of predictability. Instead, Yakubu offers the predictability of a leaf blowing in the wind.

Enter his other soulmate—Lendale White. White, the “Thunder” to Reggie Bush’s “Lightning” on the great USC football teams of the mid-2000’s, is a powerful runner with a nose for the endzone, terribly difficult to tackle in open space or between the tackles. When he was drafted, he was lauded as a sixteen games a year, consistent ball carrier. While he’s shown his ability in flashes, he’s struggled with his weight and fitness and has now taken a backseat to greatness in the form of Chris Johnson. Despite losing thirty pounds, White has seen his carries drop off dramatically. A restricted free agent (unless the NFL miraculously works out a collective bargaining agreement), all signs point to an exit from Nashville in the spring.

Lendale “Hungry” White

Yakubu as well has battled with fitness and injury, and he’s seen his playing time drop off dramatically at Goodison with the rejuvenation of former Manchester United man Louis Saha and David Moyes’ curious, and seemingly ending, fascination with the tragically overrated Jo. While Yakubu still has his moments, questions about his work ethic and ability to play a full game are pervasive. Pete Carroll was once asked about his “other” star tailback at USC, and memorably responded, “Well…We wouldn’t call Lendale a work-out guy.” This seems to be a fair assessment of Yakubu, who often frustrates the Everton faithful by falling pointlessly to the ground, not running in the slightest defensively, and giving up on long balls that are perceived to be a bit out of reach. I often joke that Yakubu chooses 15 minutes a game to one of the game’s most brilliant players—the rest he spends thinking about the buffet table.

These questions are a lingering concern and will only be answered when the Super Eagles take to the field in South Africa this summer. Look for a few early hints in the African Cup of Nations—where Yak today managed a full 90 (GASP!!) in a 3-1 defeat to Egypt that opened the tournament for the Super Eagles. Beyond that—be mindful of his finish to the year @ Goodison. A good finish would be a great sign for the Nigerians, whose sleeper status is largely contingent on which version of the star striker shows up this June.

Neil W. Blackmon

  • Why’s a hefty Jerome Bettis gotta be clowning Brandon McGowan?! He went to Maine Neil! Maine! And he can’t help the fact that Kyle Orton kept throwing the ball to the guys in black and gold (or blindly into the snow). Sorry for the tangent, still haunted by having to watch this game among the Steelers faithful at CJ’s four years ago.

    Great all-effort-Yakubu post… also, perfect pic of Lendale!

  • Stoehrst

    Portsmouth played in the Champions League? Where was I?

  • Neil W. Blackmon

    They played in the UEFA Cup, where Yakubu scored several goals. I blame my editor, but thanks for noticing the printed error.