August 12, 1989, exactly 28 years ago will forever be etched in the minds of football fans as one of the darkest moments in the history of Nigerian football.
Reason? It was the day death combed the soccer scene and froze the hands of Nigeria’s midfield dynamo, Samuel Sochukwuma Okwaraji.
That day, fans had thronged the National Stadium, Lagos, with the aim of watching the then Green Eagles fly over a stubborn Palancas Negras of Angola squad in a make or burst Italia ’90 World Cup qualifying match.
Little did they know that Okwaraji on that hot steamy afternoon will answer the great call from his Almighty creator!
In the excruciating and energy-sapping encounter, Okwaraji held tight the midfield and gave the Angolans a dose of his soccer artistry.
However, at the 77th minute the soccer world bade goodbye to an icon of the round leather game as Okwaraji slumped and died and efforts made by the Nigerian medical team to bring Sammy back to life proved abortive!
As a kicker, 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 his fatherland.
Not minding whether his effigy or memorial bust at the National Stadium is polished regularly or left to the dictates of varying weather conditions, fans must continue to eulogize this patriotic Nigerian who spoke seven languages fluently and gave up his life for Nigerian football to grow.
Okwaraji in very short description, came, saw and conquered!
He never had respect for Nigeria’s perennial rivals in football and worked hard to crush them in the battle field.
At Maroc ’88 Africa Cup of Nations, Cameroon had a feel of his sting as he scored the fastest goal of the tournament against ‘mighty’ Indomitable Lions.
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.
He went for the tackles, aerial balls and in fact did more than his fair share of safe guarding the perimeter of the 18-yard box to earn himself a place in Nigeria’s first Olympic team in 1988.
This enigma, who shared common hairstyles with Holland star Ruud Gullit, eternally played himself with amazing skills, into the consciousness of every Nigerian from the day he began his astonishing debut for the Eagles on January 30, 1988 at the Nnamdi Azikwe Stadium, Enugu, where he scored a stunner that hit the roof of the net of the then Dessert Warriors of Algeria.
Unlike footballers of today, Okwaraji did not leave the football shores of Nigeria for the greener pastures of Europe to get a call-up to the national team.
He was in Europe to study when his unrelenting passion to serve his fatherland as a footballer got hold of him. He went to Europe to study Law and he earned a Master’s degree. He also had a great flair for football and table tennis.
It was at this juncture of indispensability at club side, Okwaraji’s heart became so sore and the only healing medicine was to play for the Green Eagles. Though overlooked by national team selectors on several occasions, it did not kill his undying love to play for Nigeria.
Okwaraji soon had his chance to play for his country of birth, but his club would not hear of it. His club manager asked the NFA to pay an estimated cost of $45, 000 for their star player’s match bonus and an expected loss in the club’s gate taking for the period in which he would be on national duty.
Hearing about this agreement, this patriot hit back at his club saying: “I signed to play football for you on certain conditions, but I don’t think it includes reselling my services to my country.
You cannot stop me playing for Nigeria and let me tell you, I am going to represent my country in the World Cup in Italy whether you like it or not and I would very much like for you to be there.”
Unlike some players who today hold the nation to ransom on bloated winning bonuses and flight ticket refund, Okwaraji paid his way to play for Nigeria without asking for a dime.
He would come to camp uninvited and beg the coach to throw the jerseys on the floor for players to fight for. It was this move that heralded the era of throwing the camp open. He was not afraid to put his career on the line for his country and even put his life on the line too!
Late national team coach Paul Hamilton once said: “Whether he was invited or not, he would travel down to battle for a place in the team, even when he won’t be paid a dime. He is definitely a man to be remembered for all he has done for Nigerian football. A foundation should be set in his honour to cater for the family he left behind.”
As noted earlier in this piece, at Maroc ’88 Africa Cup of Nations, ‘Waski Pele’ as he was fondly called by his admirers during his heydays at Eziachi Secondary School, Orlu, Imo State, shone like a billion stars and in the process was named man of the match twice and his wonder strike against Cameroon stood till date as one of the fastest goals in the African football fiesta.
For the love of Nigeria, Samuel Sochukwuma Okwaraji died fast at the National Stadium, Lagos from a congestive heart failure. He was aged 25.
Born in Umudioka, Orlu, Imo State, on May 19, 1964, his father, Mr. David Okwaraji was a late duty officer at the erstwhile Nigeria Airways and the mother, Mrs. Janet Okwaraji, a retired headmistress.
The late soccer star was the fifth in the line of seven children, five of whom were boys and two were girls.
Former team mate Etim Esin ‘Maradona’ remembers the impact of his death on the national team’s hope of qualifying for its first World Cup.
“A very great footballer! He was the first player to wear a dreadlock in the national team which was strange to Nigerian football at that time.
His death cost us the Italia ’90 World Cup ticket because we were all scared to slump. I still recall that at the airport en route Cameroon, Peter Rufai, Richard Owubokiri and some players dropped out,” Esin recalled with a tinge of regret.
Okwaraji’s love for Nigeria went beyond him on the pitch as he craved for a conducive environment created where up and coming footballers could express themselves and be recognized.
And against the old order of picking players based on sentiments, he wanted a vibrant, agile and a resourceful national team in place at all times.
28 years after his painful exit from this planet, the questions begging for answer are: Has he been celebrated enough considering his selfless service to the country and circumstances leading to his death?
Why is it a near impossible task for our football administrators to keep to their simple promise of resting his jersey number 6 and immortalizing him properly?
It is the stand of the writer of this piece that the Federal Government should in conjunction with the Ministry of Youth and Sports rename the National Stadium, Lagos, after the late soccer icon for paying the supreme price in order for our country’s football to grow!
QUOTE: “As a kicker, 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 his fatherland. Not minding whether his effigy or memorial bust at the National Stadium is polished regularly or left to the dictates of varying weather conditions, fans must continue to eulogize this patriotic Nigerian who spoke seven languages fluently and gave up his life for Nigerian football to grow.”