Okwaraji brought something fresh to the Super Eagles. He was strong, quick, energetic… he was to later become an integral part of the national team
On the 12th of August, 1990, tragedy struck the country’s soccer fraternity as the nation’s senior football team, the Super Eagles, dramatically lost a rising soccer star, Samuel Okwaraji to the cold hand of death. Okwaraji’s sad demise occurred right on the soccer pitch during a 1990 World Cup qualifying match, against Angola, at the Main Bowl of the National Stadium, Surulere, Lagos.
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His death shocked many soccer loving fans across the world. It was so painful that such a bundle of talent, energetic and mercurial midfield maestro could slump and die on the field, just like that. The mysterious part of the episode was that the late soccer star did not have any collision with other players while he slumped. He was not even in contact with the ball. He was standing alone, all by himself, when he slumped and eventually gave up the ghost. His colleague, Samson Siasia, who was the first to notice him gasping frantically for breath, hurriedly called the attention of the team’s medical staff to the unfolding drama. Unfortunately, the footballer allegedly died of heart attack in the ambulance that was taking him to the hospital.
Though the Super Eagles eventually won the match 1-0 courtesy a late Skipper Stephen Keshi’s goal, Okwaraji’s tragic death cast a huge shadow over the victory. The Umudioka Orlu, Imo State, born soccer star, who was then plying his football trade in Germany with VfB Stuttgart, made his Super Eagles debut on the 30th of January, 1988, at Nnamdi Azikiwe Stadium, Enugu, in the second leg of the final Olympic qualifier for the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games against the Desert Warriors of Algeria. As it is often said in soccer parlance, having lost the first leg of the match 1-0 to the Algerians, the return leg was ‘a do-or-die’ affair for the Super Eagles. Fortunately, debutant Okwaraji became the Eagles’ joker in the game as he was mainly unknown to an Algerian side that never factored him into their game plan.
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It was that game that announced the arrival of Okwaraji to the big stage as a promising and invaluable soccer asset to the national team. He completely reinvigorated the Eagles midfield as he completely outclassed the Algerians with his energetic runs and superb ball distribution. Trust Nigerian soccer fans, the whole stadium erupted in thunderous chanting of ‘Okwaraji’, ‘Okwaraji’, ‘Okwaraji’ in appreciation of the soccer maestro’s amazing football skill. Thanks to his superb performance, the Super Eagles ultimately won the match 2-0 and qualified for the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games with goals from towering Belgium based Ademola Adesina and diminutive Henry Nwosu who scored the second goal in the extra time of the tension soaked match.
Without a doubt, Okwaraji brought something fresh to the Super Eagles. He was strong, quick, energetic and visionary. No wonder, he was to later become an integral part of the national team. He was in the Super Eagles team that represented Nigeria at the Seoul Olympic Games in 1988 where he gave a good account of himself. It was, however, at the 1988 African Nations Cup tournament, hosted by Morocco and tagged: “Maroc ‘88 “, that Okwaraji effectively proclaimed himself as the continent new soccer star.
He shone brightly at championship with his sublime performance that helped the Super Eagles got to the final, losing narrowly by 1-0, and in a most controversial fashion, to Cameroun. At the championship, Okwaraji scored the fastest goal of the African Nations Cup, till date, in the 89th second. It was a thunderous left-footer volley that saw legendary Camerounian goalkeeper, Antoine Bell, scampering helplessly across the goal post like a baby who was searching for his precious toy!
While it is true that Okwaraji was one of the nation’s finest and most imaginative footballers ever, it was, however, not only his soccer artistry that endeared the soccer prodigy with a Rasta hairdo to Nigerian soccer fans. Unlike some of his contemporaries who had over bloated ego, Okwaraji was humble and quite unassuming. He never allowed his stardom to get into his head. He was always among the earliest to report to camp and was not involved in any unnecessary controversy throughout his Super Eagles years.
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Indeed, Okwaraji was a patriot to the core. Unlike a few of his colleagues who often placed the interest of their respective football clubs above national considerations, Okwaraji was always ready to answer national call. He was once quoted as saying that it was a big and rare privilege to put on the nation’s national colour and as such he would never take it for granted. To him, the nation is worth dying for. Ironically, he died serving his fatherland! On many occasions, he had personally paid for his flight tickets while on national assignment and was never involved in any undue squabble concerning refund. The then number two man in the country, late Admiral Augustine Aikhomu, made reference to this while paying tribute to the patriot. At a time when the nation’s football house was cash stripped, he was alleged to have offered to bail them out by opting to pay for his colleagues air tickets. Such was the depth of his patriotism.
This superlative and immensely endowed soccer star was unique in many ways. He was one of the few Nigerian footballers that effectively combined soccer brilliance with academic excellence. He was a qualified lawyer who had a master’s degree in International Law from the University of Rome and was reportedly on the verge of earning a PhD in the same field by the time of his heartbreaking demise. For obvious reason, he was his family’s breadwinner, taking care of his aged parents, siblings and other extended family members. He was said to be generous to a fault. No wonder bitter tears rolled down the faces of relations at his burial.
To keep the memories of late Okwaraji alive, appropriate authorities should make efforts to immortalize him and other such fallen sports stars that had spent their most productive years serving their fatherland. While it is commendable that the federal government gave Okwaraji a national burial as well as financial grant to his family and government scholarship to one of his younger brothers, so much could still be done by both private and public entities to keep celebrating this patriot who died in the service of his fatherland at a prime age of 25.
Presently, many of the nation’s gifted sports stars are not too enthusiastic about representing their fatherland. There have been instances when a few of them opted to represent other countries where they believe their interests would be best taken care of. Therefore, one of the best possible ways of instilling patriotism and inculcating the art of selfless service in our youths is through immortalizing heroes such as Okwaraji. Such would go a long way to help stimulate our compatriots, young and old, to be involved in altruistic service to their fatherland. May Okwaraji’s soul continue to rest in perfect peace!