Abubakari Yakubu liked to hand out on the football field, but was also a generous man outside the lines – he preferred not to see any distress around him. Whoever knocked on his door for money, he did not send away empty-handed. If, after his professional career, he went to play football with friends on the field in their neighborhood in the Ghanaian city of Tema and then had something to eat and drink, Yakubu would pay for everyone.
Whoever speaks of his former teammates or trainers in the documentary ‘YAKUBU’, which premiered last Monday in Hilversum, everyone describes the former player of Ajax and Vitesse as friendly, accessible. But as much as they remember him on and around the pitch, no one knows exactly what happened to the Ghanaian after his departure from Vitesse in 2009.
Also for his former host parents, the Kok family from Amsterdam, the far too early death of Yakubu – he died in 2017 at the age of 35 – was a big question mark. What had happened to the boy who had been part of their family for eight years during his Ajax days? A message on Twitter from the Ghanaian Football Association, on November 1, 2017, was all they had. Yakubu had died after a short illness in a hospital in the Ghanaian capital Accra, cause unknown.
For documentary maker Gerdo Vlastuin an interview with the Kok family is in Ajax Life, the Amsterdam club’s supporters magazine, reason to contact them. “Why didn’t they know about his death?” I thought. “That must be available on the internet, right?”
An hour-long conversation at the family’s kitchen table convinces Vlastuin that he must find the answers surrounding Yakubu’s death. But where does the quest begin? The former host family only remembers the first name of Yakubu’s ex-wife, Evelyn. She lived with him and their son in Amsterdam. An appeal via the Ghanaian Community Netherlands foundation – about twenty thousand people of Ghanaian origin live in Amsterdam – initially yields nothing. Months later, someone who knows where to find Evelyn, in Amsterdam, comes forward.
“She was able to answer some of my questions,” says Vlastuin. For example, Evelyn tells that Yakubu almost didn’t want to see their son anymore, that contact with him became less when he was back in Ghana. His friends wouldn’t have been good to Yakubu. In the weeks surrounding her ex’s death, Evelyn was in Ghana; she even visited him in the hospital.
Former Vitesse striker Matthew Amoah, who just like Yakubu comes from Tema, casually tells Vlastuin that Yakubu had a drinking problem. Through Amoah he comes into contact with a childhood friend of Yakubu, who lives in Brussels. But the coronavirus outbreak is not cooperating with the progress of the search. Nevertheless, Vlastuin perseveres. “The main motivation remained: his host family deserves an answer. I promised them.”
It is mainly a financial challenge to tackle and sustain such a project. It does not (yet) result in compensation. Vlastuin tried to sell his documentary while making it at Videoland and ESPN, among others. “Nice idea, but come back when you’re done,” they said. Omroep Gelderland, for which Vlastuin does more jobs with his production company, does believe in the documentary, but there is no budget.
The financial barrier becomes even higher when Vlastuin realizes that he really has to travel to the homeland of Yakubu for the complete story. A crowdfunding campaign yields 3,500 euros, which allows him to go to Ghana with a cameraman.
In Tema he has an appointment with Anthony Obodai, who also played in the youth of Ajax and is of the same generation as Yakubu. He also talks about the influence of friends. And the drink, which would eventually cost him his life.
Mother with pictures
Vlastuin does not find a fixer, someone who arranges appointments on the spot. He does speak Idrissou, a brother of Yakubu. “But when he introduced himself, he turned out to be an uncle, not a brother,” says Vlastuin. Idrissou drives the Dutch duo around Ghana, accompanied every day by a ‘friend’ or acquaintance of Yakubu.
The uncle takes them to Yakubu’s mother, who already knows that a Dutchman wants to find out the story of her deceased son. She shows a garbage bag with a handful of (baby) photos of Yakubu – it’s all that’s left. But communication with the mother is difficult. Like many Ghanaians, she understands English, but speaks back in the local language. Another uncle, Zapata, can better explain where Vlastuin can find the last puzzle piece: cousin Karim.
“Even when Yakubu was still playing football, he was already drinking,” Karim tells Vlastuin on the edge of the football field where they used to play. He was there when Yakubu was taken to hospital in October 2017. Yakubu spent too much money and drank too much. An extra bonus from the Ghanaian team was wasted in Accra shortly after the whistle. And those who wanted to share in the wealth were allowed to join.
When Vlastuin returns from Ghana at the beginning of October this year, he makes a first, quick montage of the collected material. He looks at it a day later with the Kok family, on the couch. He can give them the answer they’ve been waiting for so long. “I wanted to show them first. That was emotional, it’s a sad story,” says Vlastuin. “But somehow they weren’t surprised that it turned out this way for him. As if it has always been in Yakubu.”
A version of this article also appeared in NRC Handelsblad of 28 October 2021
A version of this article also appeared in NRC in the morning of October 28, 2021