By - Victor Kekereekun
August 12, 1989, will forever be engraved in the minds of Nigerian football-loving fans as one of the saddest moments in football history. The green-white-green supporters had filled the National Stadium, Lagos – hoping to see their own Eagles outwit Angola in a do-or-die Italia ’90 World Cup qualifier. Little did they know that one of their own very stars was closer to the valley of death ever than before. Okwaraji’s time was up!
So to say, Samuel Okwaraji was to Nigeria what Pele is to Brazil and Maradona is to Argentina. He was an epitome of flair, commitment and doggedness and till his last breath, he gave his all for fatherland.
A member of the Green Eagles squad of 1988 who was born on May 19, 1964, Okwaraji was one of the many discoveries of German tactician Manfred Hoener in an era that is still regarded as part of the glory days of Nigerian football.
At the 1988 Africa Cup of Nations, he shone like a million stars and in the process was named man of the match and his wonder strike against Cameroon was icing on the cake as it stood till date as one of the fastest goals in the African football fiesta.
Watch Okwaraji’s goal vs Cameroon in 1988 Africa Cup of Nations:
While representing his fatherland – Nigeria, Samuel Okwaraji died at the National Stadium, Lagos from congestive heart failure in August 12, 1989, in the 77th minute of a World Cup qualifier against Angola. The autopsy showed that then 25-year-old had an enlarged heart and high blood pressure.
“It was a sad day for us back then. Everything happened so fast and I can’t still believe it that few minutes before he died he was running alongside the rest of us on the pitch and the next moment we would never see him again because we were told he was dead,” Okwaraji’s ex-teammate and former Nigeria playmaker, Etim Esin recalled.
Okwaraji was widely loved and acknowledged for his deligence on the pitch that multinationl technology company – Google – took it upon themselves to celebrate his posthumous birthday on May 19, 2019, with a special feature – a doodle.
During his football years, Okwaraji enjoyed successes as he plied his trade with European football clubs; AS Roma, Austria Klagenfurt, NK Dinamo Zagreb and VfB Stuttgart to metion but a few.
Even though Samuel Okwaraji was a footballer of incredible talent and enthralling reputation, yet there was more to him than footballing skills. Okwaraji was a qualified lawyer who had both his Bachelors’ and Masters’ in international law from the Pontifical Lateran University of Rome. In fact, it is even stated in some circles that Okwaraji was a PhD student at the time of his demise.
This is remarkable, given the fact that many sportsmen in this part of the world hardly show the desire to further their education after making the limelight. Unlike footballers of today, he initially left the football scene of Nigeria to study law – and returned as a footballer whose unrelenting passion to serve his fatherland and represent his country colours got hold of him.
Further, Samuel Okwaraji’s legacy and heroics go beyond just football; they transcend into the spheres of unparalleled enthusiasm for education – and the commendable ability to combine football and education at the highest level. You can only wonder if any other Nigerian sportsman has borrowed a leaf from the late Samuel Okwaraji – to pursue sports and education to the highest possible point.
Further, He could speak at least five languages: His native Igbo, English, German, Italian and Spanish. Some of these languages were enabled by the fact that his footballing career spanned through some of these countries.
Given the opportunity to practice law or play football, Samuel Okwaraji chose football instead because he was of the opinion football was the better option for him. He believed the football pitch was where he belonged. If had to choose between two benches, he would rather sit on the football bench than the court bench. Samuel Okwaraji played eight times for the Nigeria, scoring one goal in the process.
The above declaration is emphatically embedded in the first stanza of Nigeria’s national anthem. However, its relevance has continued to attract questions.
Okwaraji did not only serve Nigeria with his “heart and might” but paid the supreme price for his fatherland. Regrettably, many years after the demise of the iconic soccer star, whose patriotic disposition remains a talking point in the history of Nigerian sports, none of the promises made by the Federal Government to immortalise him has been fulfilled. You can only ask yourself if he has truly been celebrated enough considering his selfless devotion to his country and circumstances leading to his demise. Or why it is a seeming impossible action for the Nigerian football administrators to keep to their simple promise of resting his jersey number 6 among other pledges. In 2017, a member of the House of Representatives, Mr Tajudeen Yusuf, from Kogi State, moved a motion in the House, insisting that the federal government should fulfil those promises – but what have we got? Same old baseless rhetorics!
Further, a member of the Samnuel Okwaraji Foundation, Mr Chidozie Achonwa, revealed some of the promises made by the federal government after the demise.
He said: “The federal government made five promises when Sam died.
“The then Head of State, General Ibrahim Babangida, represented by General David Mark at the burial, made about five promises, but none of them has been fulfilled till date.
“One of the promises was to retire his (Okwaraji’s) No. 6 national team jersey. Another promise was to build a stadium in his community in Umudioka, Orlu, Imo State, which has not been done.”
Nonetheless, a stadium was named after Okwaraji in Orlu, Imo State, by former governor of the State, Achike Udenwa, but the stadium had since been displaced by a new road. Although a new stadium has been built in the same area by the former governor of the state, Rochas Okorocha, it is yet to be named after the late footballer.
“If Sam comes back to life and sees the way his family is being treated, he would be shocked and disappointed,” Mr Achonwa lamented.
In 2018, Okwaraji’s mother revealed her unhappiness with the federal government after alleging that all her son sacrificed for the country has been forgotten as she accused the authorities of abandoning the late hero’s family. One can as well call the Nigerian federal government a bunch of ingrates who give little or no regard to their fallen heroes. Okwaraji gave it up for the green-white-green nation – and the federal government showing no concern towards his family is as tragic as his death – if not more.
In truth, Okwaraji’s death evokes pertinent issues, such as insurance cover for sportsmen and who represent the country at international championships. In case of permanent disabilities or death, the families of such athletes ought to be adequately compensated to cushion the effect of their loss even though no amount of money can substitute life.
Now, contrary to an infamous myth that Samuel Okwaraji died after scoring the only goal for Nigeria against India (an unreal 99-1 match; in which the ball turned into a lion/fire/stone because of the ‘Indian jazz’), he didn’t die against India. He never played he against India! No ball turned into a lion or whatsoever! It was just a tragic death of a martyr on the field of play – who paid the ultimate price for his fatherland.
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