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Twenty-six Years After: Samuel Okwaraji Lives On By Tunji Balogun

August 11, 2015

Today, 26-years ago, Nigeria lost a rare gem to the cold hands of death. Former Super Eagles mercurial midfielder, Samuel Sochukwuma Okwaraji died while playing for Nigeria inside the main-bowl of the National Stadium, Surulere, Lagos State, during a 1990 FIFA World Cup Qualifier against Angola. As painful as it was, but in the words of famous English poet, playwright and actor, William Shakespeare, “A man can die but once; we owe God a death”.


According to an autopsy report of  August 12th, 1989, the 25-year-old died from a congestive heart failure (similar to that of late Cameroonian footballer Marc-Vivien Foé, who also died 14 years later). Despite all the sacrifices he made, it is quite unfortunate the Nigerian government is yet to immortalize fully the late soccer icon.

Talking about his early life, Sam was born on the 19th of May, 1964 in Owerre-Umudioka in Orlu Local Government Area of Imo-State, South Eastern Nigeria. He had a successful career in Europe which included playing for NK Dinamo Zagreb (Croatia), VfB Stuttgart (Germany) and Austria Klagenfurt (Austria), among others. He was also a qualified lawyer who had a master’s degree in international law from the University of Rome.

As a matter of fact, he made the Green Eagles squad in Morocco 1988, and at that year's African Cup of Nations finals; he scored one of the fastest goals in the history of the competition against the Indomitable Lions of Cameroon. Speaking on his remembrance, former Super Eagles playmaker, Etim Esin (popularly called ‘African Maradona’) has this to say, “On this day 12th August 1989, against Angola we lost Samuel Okwaraji. May ‘de god’ of soccer remember his soul. I say again, may the labor of our heroes past never be in vain. Because of his death, we lost the 1990 World Cup ticket to Cameroon”, emotional Esin said.

I remembered vividly how Okwaraji was very patriotic during his playing days for Nigeria. On several occasions he used his personal cash to fly himself down to Nigeria for national call-ups, and wouldn’t even bothered to demand a refund from the then Nigeria Football Association (now NFF). For someone who did all that while playing for his fatherland, I think he deserves much more after his demise; even when it was obvious, he died on national duty.

Although, former Imo-State Governor Achike Udenwa tried in his own capacity by naming a stadium after the soccer legend, which is another way of immortalizing him;  but all that is not enough, as there are no signboard at the stadium; also, no statue of the soccer star anywhere around the stadium. I felt the issue of Okwaraji has even gone beyond the state; I propose it is something of federal concern. But because we don’t keep the record, that is why we don’t know the approach, not to talk of rewarding the family he left behind. If it were not so, it wouldn't take Nigeria donkey years to reward Pa Taiwo Akinwunmi (the man who designed Nigerian flag).

By my observation, people like Adokie Amiesimaka, Samson Siasia, and host of others have stadia name after them in Rivers, Bayelsa, and other states (I am not against it), but I believe people in authority should know better. I am challenging the federal government to have a re-think and name the Lagos National Stadium after the late Sam Okwaraji since we now have another National Stadium in Abuja, the Federal Capital Territory. This is strategic, the player died at the stadium; why not name the edifice after him? If they do, it will go a long way by immortalizing the great hero who shed his blood while playing for the country in a more appropriate way. Not the image of his statue being put in front of the Lagos National Stadium. I am waiting patiently for the government that would do that! President Muhammadu Buhari should take note.   

To mention a few, Sam’s 25th year anniversary, last year went without any tangible form of remembrance to honor the player. Notable example was the case of Rashidi Yekini; it took the Portuguese club, Victoria Setubal (where he played between 1990 -1994) to put us under immediate pressure, before the League Management Company (LMC) of Nigeria responded by naming the league golden boot award after the late striker. At least the LMC are trying to do something, what are the National Sports Commission (NSC), and the Nigeria Football Federation ((NFF), the two apex sporting bodies doing about it? Nothing! How can you leave the all-time national team top goal scorer (with 37 goals) without immortalizing him? That is a topic for another day.

Another ex-international Abiodun Baruwa (MON) relieved his experience about the late midfield maestro.  In his words, the former Shooting Stars Sports Club (3SC) goalie fondly called ‘Omo Alhaja’ said:  “As a Nation, we are blessed to have a player like him; I remembered when I was a young boy playing in an academy called Greater Tomorrow and later Jidoze Babes. In the National Stadium, we usually go there together with both Sunday and Churchill Oliseh, including several others that I can't remember.”

“On that fateful day, I was there inside the hot afternoon weather watching from the stands as he (Okwaraji) was busy displaying his talents on the pitch before he finally collapsed. But all I can say about him at this juncture is that may his gentle soul continue to rest in perfect peace. The painful aspect of it is that our government is not doing anything about immortalizing again; nevertheless, his memories will continue to live on”, Baruwa said from his UK base on Tuesday.

Frankly speaking, if Okwaraji were to be a white-man (unfortunately he was not), or died while playing in their colors; he would have been more celebrated with better recognition even in death. We don’t seem to celebrate our own, and the truth is if we don’t celebrate our own (dead or alive) no foreigner will help us to do so.

Does anybody care about Nojim Maiyegun the retired Nigerian professional boxer that won Nigeria’s first Olympic medal in the men’s light middleweight at the 1964 summer Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan? The man is blind and homesick, but he is afraid of returning home because of the attention he currently receives from the Austrian government.

“I am afraid of coming to Nigeria because I’m not sure I will get the kind of honest assistance I get in Austria. I’ll need a trustworthy person to accompany me all the time, especially withdrawing money from the bank. It will be like starting from the scratch if I return home, but I want to come back. I hope the government can be of help in this regard”, Maiyegun told Punch recently.

Can the same be said of Nigeria? Do they even care about his current predicament? The answer is capital ‘No’. I wonder what people in the NSC are doing? These are part of the responsibilities of the sports ministry; please somebody should help me whisper it to them? It seems they don’t understand.  

Interestingly however, kudos should be given to the Lagos State Government for naming the Teslim Balogun Stadium in Surulere, Lagos State after the late soccer legend, Teslim ‘Thunder’ Balogun. At least, with that singular gesture, the younger generations would get to know little or much about the player’s career; even as the memory continues to linger. At the same time, we have the likes of Kid Horgan Bassey, Patrick Okala, Best Ogedengbe, Haruna Ilerika, Dick Tiger, Mudashiru Lawal and many others who are dead in our sports. What are the measures put in place to remember them? Or is it that when they are dead their memories disappears? If the latter is what we have chosen, then our sports is in jeopardy.

At this juncture, I believe there is room for improvements, especially in the area of immortalizing our past heroes. Sam Okwaraji was a brave warrior who gave his all for Nigeria, so he deserves more befitting remembrance from the Nigerian government. Even though we lost him, twenty-six years after his memory lives on. Adieu Samuel Sochukwuma Okwaraji!

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