30 years after, Nigerians remember Sam Okwaraji
• How Fashola tried to rehabilitate family
He was a rare breed. A footballer, who placed his country above every personal need. That was Samuel Sochukwuma Okwaraji. He was a patriot, who slumped and died on the pitch of the National Stadium, Lagos on August 12, 1989 during a World Cup qualifier against Angola. The game had 13 minutes left with Nigeria struggling to tame the stubborn Palancas Negras.
One striking incident on this particular day was that the ambulance stationed at the stadium failed to start as the officials struggled to take the midfielder to hospital. Okwaraji was eventually confirmed dead on arrival at the hospital.
Recently, on May 19, search company, Google, celebrated the icon with a doodle on what would have been his birthday.
And yesterday, the social media went haywire with a grateful nation celebrating Nigeria’s former attacking midfielder, who preferred the jersey number six to either 10 or eight.
Writing for The Vanguard, Emmanuel Okogba said of Okwaraji, “in a country where the learned went on to become politicians using their educated wits to con a nation full of semi-literates in the 1980s, Okwaraji was an oddity in that the law graduate from Rome, Italy decided to engage the beautiful sport.
“The team he played with was not full of university graduates (no offence to his contemporaries who only became more enlightened through their exposures in the sport.
“This not only made Nigerians fall in love with him but in many ways he bridged the gap between the rich and poor, literate and illiterate, proletariat and bourgeoisie. If widespread rumours are to be believed, Okwaraji used his personal funds to fly himself down to Nigeria for matches with the Eagles and never asked the Nigeria Football Association (now NFF) for refunds.”
Also remembering the late football patriot, the Buhari Campaign Organisation tweeted: “Exactly 30 years ago, when the nation was in an unprecedented miserable mood, the iconic, patriotic and true nationalistic man Samuel Chukwudi Okparaji passed away while serving his father land. We pray may his soul rest in perfect peace. Amen.”
Writing for the Recorder of August 12, 2019, Ikeddy Isiguzo, a former Editorial Board chairman of the Vanguard newspapers, recollects his relationship with the late footballer, “I met Sam through Onochie Anibeze. Another friend Ben Edokpayi had written about a Nigerian in Europe who was asking for a chance (only a game) to prove to Nigerians that he had a place in the Super Eagles that was suffused with great players at various stages of their distinguished careers.
“By August 12, he had become famous for his humility, education (he was a PhD student in law), amazing football skills, and his willingness to put his country first, always.
“Sam debuted for Nigeria January 30, 1988 against Algeria, at the Nnamdi Azikwe Stadium, Enugu. It was an appropriate introduction. He grew up in Enugu and his family was still there.
“He was amazing. Nigerians noticed. He had played at the 1988 Africa Cup of Nations where Nigeria finished second, scoring the competition’s fastest goal, a stunner against Cameroun that kept the Indomitable Lions in check among other contributions. He was in the 1988 Olympic team and his eyes were set on the World Cup in Italy, a country where he began his professional career in 1984-1985, in AS Roma. He played for NK Dynamo Zagreb (1985-1986), Austria Klagenfurt (1986-1987), VfB Stuttgart (1987-1989), SSV Ulm (loan) (1987-1988).
“The Italians had wanted him to nationalise, or at least, play in their League, he refused, telling them he would play for Nigeria. It would have been a delight to appear at the 1990 World Cup in Italy in Nigerian colours. He died driving that dream. He was just 25!
“Sam was different. He prepared his contract, which always featured a clause that he would be available for his country, without any cost to Nigeria. At this time, clubs and players asked for various sums to be paid to represent the country. Unlike others who stayed in hotels on arriving Lagos, he would stay with his relations in Festac Town.”
There is the legend of a true life story involving Okwaraji and his club managers.
His Belgian club had told him they would not release him to play for Nigeria in a World Cup qualifier, but Okwaraji would hear none of that. And so he stormed the manager’s office to tell them that nothing would stop him from playing for the Eagles.
He allegedly told the club: “I’m a lawyer and you know and I signed to play football for 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’m going to represent my country whether you like it or not.”
Sadly, while the footballer sacrificed his all in service of the nation, Nigeria has failed to support the family he left behind.
After his death, the Federal Government promised to take care of his mother and also provide good employment for members of his immediate family. But none of these promises have been kept.
That is, except the gesture by former Lagos Governor, Babatunde Fashola, who built a house for Okwaraji’s mother in his hometown, Umudioka, Imo State.
Okwaraji’s bust was erected in front of the National Stadium, Lagos in 2011, also by Fashola, who had, in 2009, organised a memorial game for the late footballer.
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