Samuel Okwaraji’s mother
It is 24 years since Samuel Sochukwuma Okwaraji slumped and died on the field of play for Nigeria. But the government has refused to immortalise a hero in a befitting way to encourage others, writes Chineme Okafor
Twenty four years after watching the August 12, 1989, FIFA World Cup qualifying match between Nigeria’s Green Eagles and the Palancas Negras of Angola in the main bowl of the National Stadium, Surulere, Lagos, where Samuel Sochukwuma Okwaraji demonstrated heroism that eventually claimed his life on the field of play, Bolaji Abdullahi who watched the match as a young man has become the Sports Minister, but he has not called for the books.
Abdullahi has been so busy with the present such that he has forgotten the past. So for Okwaraji the anthem has changed. It was once “the labour of our heroes past shall ever be in vain”.
It was on that fateful Saturday in 1989 when the then Green Eagles midfielder, Okwaraji lined up alongside team mates David Ngodigha, Augustine Eguavoen, Sunday Eboigbe, Stephen Keshi, the late Obobaifo Osaro, Ademola Adesina, the late Uchenna Okafor, Humphrey Edobor, Etim Esim, Samson Siasia and Dahiru Sadi, who substituted Edobor in the second half to play the qualifying game for the upcoming Italia 90’ World Cup against the Angolan senior national team. Nigeria was to win the match by a lone goal but sadly lost Okwaraji whose patriotic representation of Nigeria at soccer was widely acknowledged.
For many Nigerians, that day and hour when Okwaraji slumped and died in the main bowl of the capacity filled National Stadium while he laboured for the glory of the country remains etched in their minds, subtly reminding them of the labours of the fallen soccer hero who fell in vain and utterly negating the sixth and seventh lines of Nigeria’s national anthem.
Indeed, it was the day Nigeria commenced her qualification campaign for the 1990 World Cup hosted in Italy. Accordingly, the Confederation for African Football (CAF) had recorded an estimated 100,000 spectators at the stadium when the game kicked-off at about 4 pm. The Green Eagles led the game with a 44th minute goal from its skipper, Stephen Keshi via a massive build up initiated by Okwaraji in the midfield, all things seemed seamless for Nigeria until Okwaraji slumped and died exactly at the 77th minute of the game.
Within minutes, Okwaraji was shortly pronounced dead by doctors whose autopsy on his remains later showed that he had died of an enlarged heart. Nigeria went on to lose the qualifying ticket to Cameroun on August 27, 1989 at the Stade Omnisports in Yaounde by a lone goal but as described by teammate, Dahiru Sidi in a 2011 interview with Supersports: “It was a shock to us all with the way it happened. I came on as a substitute in that game in the second half and minutes after the game we were told Samuel Okwaraji was dead.
“At that point the win meant nothing to us and I think it affected us in our next game (against Cameroon). Unfortunately we failed to qualify for the World Cup, which would have been a befitting way to honour Okwaraji for his hard work and commitment.”
Born in Orlu in Imo State on May 19, 1964, the late soccer hero had before his death played about 10 matches for Nigeria and scored once. He made his national team debut against Algeria at the Nnamdi Azikiwe Stadium in Enugu in a Seoul 1988 Olympic qualifier and played a key role at the 1988 African Cup of Nations in Morocco, where he scored the fastest goal of the tournament against Cameroon in the group stages.
Okwaraji also played at the Olympics in Seoul the same year before his last outing against Angola in Lagos. In between, he had played professional football with NK Dynamo Zagreb of Yugoslavia, Vfb Stuttgart and SSV Ulm 1846 of Germany and also got his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in international law from the University of Rome.
Apart from his traditional mother tongue, Igbo, Okwaraji also spoke German, English, Spanish and the Italian languages and was described as a thorough professional with a heart for Nigeria. Such was his patriotism that he was reported to have often played games for the country without requesting for flight tickets and match bonuses.
Prior to his death, a conflict had ensued between him and his club, SSV Ulm 1846, which was significant enough to attract the attention of the then chairman of the Nigeria Football Association (NFA), Group Capt. John Obakpolor, who had mediated in the matter to ensure his participation in the game. SSV Ulm 1846 had demanded $45,000 before it could release Okwaraji for the qualifying games as compensation for what it would lose in gate takings while Okwaraji was away with the national team. But Obakpolor was able to negotiate a deal for the country by paying a much lower $15,000 for his release. That was done without his knowledge and consent.
Okwaraji was reported to have expressed his disappointment with his club’s action when he learnt of it and had told them that he will represent Nigeria without paying a dime, insisting: “I am a lawyer, you know I signed to play football under certain conditions but I don’t think it included reselling my services to my country. You or your club cannot stop me from playing for my country. Let me tell you, I am going to represent my country in the World Cup in Italy whether you like it or not.”
Though he never made it to the World Cup, Okwaraji’s level of commitment to Nigeria was great and equally complimented with his discipline and professionalism such that he never held the country to ransom for his services, match bonuses or return tickets to his base; he would rather pay his way without asking for refund. But almost 24 years after his death, Okwaraji’s sacrifices for his country have come to nought.
In a recent documentary that was commissioned by the Chike Okagbue Foundation (COF) on the life and times of the late football star, as well as possible efforts if any at immortalising his values, his septuagenarian mother, Mrs. Jane Okwaraji stated her displeasure at the treatment accorded to the memory of her late son.
While she wondered why Okwaraji has not been immortalised by the Nigerian state for his sacrifices, Jane noted that younger generation of Nigerians would not be compelled to give their best for the glory of Nigeria, adding that Okwaraji would have been able to live out some of his dreams that included building a world class youth football academy and a mini stadium, among others.
She asked: “Would it be too much to name the stadium in which he died after him after such a wonderful sacrifice? It is usual to retire the jersey number in which a star footballer died as a mark of respect for such a star but in the case of Sam, it did not happen. Besides, there was no insurance payment for him and we could not get his entitlements from his club abroad because Sam, as it were, did not wait to formally obtain permission from his club before coming to play for the country and died in that match.”
While recollecting some of the qualities that stood her late son out, she said Okwaraji was a very brilliant boy who went abroad to study law at St. Peters University in Rome, Italy, and from there played football and became a professional player.
“When he told me he was coming to play for Nigeria, I asked him what it was all about because I knew that by then he had qualified as a lawyer. But he was very keen on playing for his country and said that he wanted to bring Nigeria to the world map through the World Cup. I didn’t know what he meant then, but he told me that he could be a footballer and a lawyer as well and I respected his wish,” she said.
When asked about government’s efforts at immortalising Okwaraji, his mother said: “That has been my pain all these while, they haven’t done anything to immortalise this boy because he gave his life, money and education for this country and nothing has been done to immortalise him. He slumped and died at the National Stadium in Lagos. But when you go there, you will see his statue that was erected at the gate but I don’t know if that is the kind of immortalisation that befits Sam.
“Nothing has happened irrespective of the kind of burial Nigeria gave to him. It was a very famous national burial that saw markets, banks and all government offices in Enugu closed for him and people lined up the streets for Sam who was given a lot of respect when he died because they brought him home like a king.”
She continued: “It was so painful to me when he died because he was close to my heart and knew what I wanted and would always care for me, but I lost him and it was a terrible loss to me. The government indeed made promises to help me out with the care of my children when Sam died because he was the family’s provider but nothing was done.
“I was at home for a whole year and didn’t teach, receiving condolences from people all over Nigeria for the death of Sam who was multitalented, because I could remember he got a recommendation and congratulatory letter from the Korean government for one of his art works which was chosen as the best in a primary school art contest.”
Okwaraji’s mother said she still feels the pain of Sam’s death 25 years after. “I have regrets and I cannot hide them,” she said. “I feel the pain because I am sure if he lived amongst us, I wouldn’t be kept in this condition. I know he could have done so much more for me because he cared for me. The boy really cared for me while he was alive.
“I am so surprised that a government could make false promises and also fail to fulfill the pledges it made. The government could not feel the death of the 24-year-old boy who died labouring to bring glory to Nigeria. That is so unfair. Nigeria has disappointed me because the government promised to help train my children to any level of education and at the same time help the family but they have failed.”
Keeping His Memory Alive
Speaking to THISDAY on its decision to make a documentary on the life and times of the late soccer player, 24 years after he had passed on, the Chairman, Board of Trustees of COF, Mrs. Chinelo Bob-Osamor stated that the foundation resolved to bring back memories of the late Okwaraji and the neglect of his sacrifices for Nigeria when it visited his aged mother at her home in Enugu to discover the lonely life she had led in his absence.
Bob-Osamor said: “Our society is so wretched in values. To imagine that after all Sam did for this country; spent his money and gave his time for the glory of Nigeria, and as if that wasn’t enough, he died while playing for this country. Yet the government remains so insensitive to the family of a young man that paid a supreme sacrifice for this country.
“At least, I watched the match on the TV in 1989 and saw what happened, so nobody can tell me the story. Sam was an exceptionally good professional back in the day when footballers hardly went to university and he deserved to be honoured in a better way.”
While disclosing the desire of the foundation to foster measures that would keep the memory of Okwaraji alive in Nigeria, Bob-Osamor also spoke of the futile efforts made by the foundation to reach the relevant stakeholders including the National Sports Commission, National Assembly Committees on Sports and other government agencies involved in the management of the game in the country to commit to endorsing and initiating valuable memorabilia in honour of Okwaraji.
“It is pathetic to discover that even the people who you expect to show interest in honouring the late Sam are not even willing to listen to you. We got across to the National Assembly Committees on Sports but were told stories of how difficult it will be to initiate something in the memory of Okwaraji. We tried to get to the Minister of Sports but certain fellows in the office of the minister would not grant us permission to see the man. That is the kind of society we live in, robbing Peter to pay Paul
“24 years back it was Okwaraji, and a couple of years ago it was Rashidi Yekini, tomorrow it may be Kanu Nwankwo, another great footballer who has done so well for the country yet the government does not deem it fit to honour these men and women that have served to glorify this country, but would rather honour thieves and crooks with high profile honours,” she lamented.