SAM OKWARAJI: THE DAY FOOTBALL DIED
- Complete Football editorial on Okwaraji’s death in 1989
The transition of Samuel Okwaraji (1964–1989), the Nigerian wizard of ‘distributive football’ will go down in our sports history as a shocking event.
Shocking for his family and his friends, shocking for all football lovers who saw him play for the first time in the National Stadium, Surulere, a game that proved to be his last, shocking for the entire nation which had come to easily distinguish him in the national team because of his famed dread-locks.
While we mourn him, however, it would be childish and regrettable to let our tears blind us from a duty we owe his departed soul.
Complete Football here scorns at the failure of government to postpone, even by one day, the 8th National Sports Festival which took off at the venue of Okwaraji’s death less than 24 hours after the tragedy. To say the least, the action or inaction was disrespect to the patriotic soul of Okwaraji.
However, government can make a reparation by ensuring that its ‘seeming forgetfulness’ of Sam’s soul, just after he died, is made up with appropriate steps to make his name forever remembered.
Giving Sam a national burial and extending adequate compensation to his family is a good start. But government must immortalize him for he died in the service of his fatherland.
However, while Complete Football wouldn’t suggest any innuendos regarding the mysterious death of Okwaraji, believing that the Creator knows the unknown, we strongly hold the view that the individuals or groups found responsible for the overcrowding which culminated in the death of more than seven soccer fans at the National Stadium be brought to book. That is the only way to prevent a re-occurrence.
The heroic deaths of Sam Okwaraji and the soccer fans typify the death of a big chunk of football and its fun.
Of course, more fun will be created still, but the lost chunk will never be replaced.
OKWARAJI’S LETTER TO SUNNY OJEAGBASE
He died so that Nigerian football may live?
Sam Okwaraji’s intimate letter to Complete Football publisher, Sunny Obazu-Ojeagbase in which he talked with so much concern for the future of Nigeria’s football.
My dearest Sunny,
Thanks for replying and for the magazines you sent to me. I can’t thank you enough. Mr. Dubberke sent them to me. How are you and your family? Extend my regards to all your friends, colleagues and well wishers.
Surely your magazines (COMPLETE FOOTBALL and CLIMAX) are doing very fine. Keep it up and please continue helping Nigerian football to grow. Your work will surely benefit the younger generation. Talent abound in Nigeria, but the only problem is how to encourage and guide them. Your magazine is so important because it gives these young growing footballers a sense of recognition and confidence. I mean a sort of inspiration. I know for example how happy I was when I read something written about me for the first time in a newspaper. Things like that give young players the urge for more and continuous improvement. Please keep it up.
SEGUN ODEGBAMI’S articles are sensational. He is the type of person we need in Nigerian football. I have no doubt that he will do more for Nigeria. He is very courageous, intelligent (like his brother Wole) and down-to-earth. Few people are like him in Nigeria.
You see how right I was when I told you that Nigeria should bank more on young players? I think that our performance in the last (1989) Junior World Cup (the Flying Eagles finished as runner-up) proves me right. If these players can play in the finals of the Junior World Cup, then they can also play in the Seniors in a country like Nigeria.
Other countries are using more of their younger players so I don’t know why Nigeria is an exception. Segun Odegbami has the same opinion in one of his articles in Complete Football.
I love Nigeria and would like to help contribute to her development in all fields especially in sports but it’s unfortunate that I have very limited means. Sometimes people are afraid of saying the truth in a country like Nigeria where almost everybody has a justification for anything he does, be it right or wrong — it’s a pity!
I hope that I was able to give, show, teach and prove something the short time I was in the Nigerian football scene. The only thing I can do is in the field of play for now and I have no doubt that you and your important magazine will before long be able to educate millions of your readers in some of the predicaments existing in Nigerian football and its organization. When this is done, only then can we say that we are the giants of African football.
How is the national team preparing for the next match (1990 World Cup qualifier) against Cameroun coming up in June? I hope it’s not the same shabby preparation they had in the last two matches that made me risk my reputation in Enugu. Sunny, let me tell you a secret. Normally I don’t agree to play matches I am not very well prepared for. I was off season and on holidays, it’s true that I was training alone before the match but training alone was not an enough preparation for a crucial match like that. I decided to take that risk because of mere patriotism.
I came in because I knew that my presence will raise the hope of many Nigerians and that of the players and would have surely been decisive if I was played in my right wing but I didn’t know what waited for me because of my sacrifice.
All I hope is that the NFA learns from that experience and prepare better this time.
I spoke with Stephen Keshi some weeks ago and he was so confident on our possibilities of playing in the World Cup finals. I am as confident as he is but it’s a pity that I might, not be around for that match because Coach Paul HAMILTON did not include my name as one of those needed to complete the team. It’s a pity! I wanted to revenge our loss to Cameroun in Morocco (Maroc ’88 AFCON) but now I can only hope that any team that will meet them on that day will do that for me.
He (Hamilton) failed to give his reasons because he had none. I personally do not have anything against him that makes him want to put me off now I can help so much.
I respect all my coaches but I try not to be too friendly with them in order not to influence some of their decisions. In the professional football world, it’s so (and I applied it in the case of Hamilton). May be he is used to players coming near to him but it’s different with me because when I am in camp, I just try to do my business — I mean play football, say good morning and hello and that’s that. I behaved the same way with (former Nigeria coach) Mr. Manfred Hoener.
I don’t have anything against Mr. Hamilton, believe me, and I don’t know why he is against me. If he thinks that I am a friend of Hoener, then he is making a big mistake because I’m a friend of no coach.
In Stephen Kesha’s case they said that he was undisciplined, the same with Etim Esin and Henry Nwosu; what can they say now in that of OKWARAJI?
First, he played me in a wrong wing (after treating me like a stranger) and now he is keeping me out of helping my country. It’s a pity that things like this are still happening in a country like Nigeria.
I am comfortable where I am and get no big financial satisfaction from playing for Nigeria. I do it just for simple patriotism and nothing more. I have always given my best but see how I am repaid — DROPPED, like the Punch newspaper of 10-4-89 captioned it. Is this correct?
If Mr. Hamilton drops me because I am not playing well or because another player is better than me, this is understandable but if he drops me because of some personal grudge or oversight, then he does not love Nigeria and has not learnt from Hoener.
In other countries, the normal thing to do is to bring the coach and player together and try to resolve everything. I don’t know if the NFA knows it.
If I don’t play on the 10th of June, it’s only Cameroun that will benefit by it, surely not Nigeria. It will give them the same relief it will give us if we hear that Emmanuel KUNDE (he scored the winning goal against us in Morocco) will not play.
I am not trying to say that Nigeria cannot win without me but I am saying that the best should play irrespective of personal grudges. If the best plays, then we have a greater chance than when we play our friends. The Super Eagles is a national team and not a personal team.
That match against Cameroun is a very important and difficult match and our qualification depends on it. Cameroun is no push-over and nobody should forget that they are the champions of Africa. Cameroun will use all the resources within her reach to make sure that they qualify and I hope that Nigeria does the same. If keeping OKWARAJI away will help Nigeria to qualify then I am the first person to support such an opinion.
Sunny, I am sorry if I am telling you a very long story but I’m obliged because this is the second time I’m writing you in two months.
How will I feel if I don’t play against Cameroun? Normal, perfectly O.K. That match will not make me what I am today. I have already had my satisfaction in Morocco when I scored the fastest and the only goal they (Cameroun) conceded in the tournament. Surely I want to win Cameroun but if Hamilton says no, who am I to doubt his decision.
May be if I am a Camerounian, they would have treated me better for all my sacrifices and dedication. And let me tell you one more secret, I might not accept if the invitation comes in future and if I will accept, then the NFA should be ready to go through all the huddles to secure my release from my new club.
Now nobody will say that OKWARAJI refused to answer a national call like others used to do but that he was not called because of no good reason.
Sunny, now can you see how they force players to become braggarts and why Stephen Keshi is the only guy who knows what he wants?
Now you know the truth in case they start painting me in future. All for me and football! Long story eh? Sorry for my disturbances.
Enclosed are some Italian magazines, I hope that they will be of great help to you.
Ehe, you asked about my terms for sending the magazines – and giving you information about European football. Buy me a pair of boots. You are a nice guy, so I will do it for just a pair of boots. Tell me the type of information you need and any other thing I might do for you from here.
You ask for some stories about myself. I am fine and very fit. I have signed for a new club with better terms. Ehe, keep the rest until I come home in June. I will tell you everything then – I promise!
Please don’t publish this letter or the content. My intent is to tell you because you are a very good friend of mine.
May God bless you. I am hoping to hear from you. I didn’t know that I am good enough to be voted the 3rd best in Nigeria and the continent by readers of your magazine. It means that some people still remember me after all. Bye for now. – Sam.
SUNNY OJEAGBASE’S LETTER TO SAM OKWARAJI
Complete Football publisher, Sunny Obazu-Ojeagbase, recalls the last few hours he spent with Sam Okwaraji and how their intimate friendship developed.
ADIEU, Sam Okwaraji, my friend. When last we met at Sheraton Hotel in the company of my long-time friend and business associate, Mr. Oludare Onasegun, on the eve of our crucial World Cup clash against Angola, we had very little time to discuss.
In fact, we postponed any discussion till the next day after the big occasion game when we planned to go to NiteShift Club to celebrate your happy return to the national team and Nigeria’s assured victory over Angola.
It was NiteShift I took you to on your one but last visit home where you commended the aesthetical interior setting of NiteShift which you said made you so happy Nigeria had anything of such high standard within its shores and that you thought you were in Europe during that memorable night.
I told NiteShift Governor, Mr. Ken Caleb-Olumese, what you thought of his dream nightclub and I had, in fact, assured him that I was returning to the club with you last Saturday after the World Cup match to celebrate our certain victory over Angola and he was already looking forward to meeting you again.
Neither yourself nor I knew that the first visit we both made to NiteShift would be your last; that there would be no celebration for us despite the fact that Nigeria still earned a deserved victory over Angola; that there at the corner, unseen, was death, with its scent of sorrow, lurking and waiting for you with its usual sinister and icy finger.
I first spoke to you on the phone last Friday (August 11, 1989) at the Sheraton Hotel and your voice, ever so confident, declared that you would show Nigerians the real Sam Okwaraji the next day and what you can do with the ball.
I was happy for you and as soon as I dropped the phone, I announced to some of the gentlemen with whom we are striving to survive the hassle of running two delicate magazines what you had promised to do against Angola.
They were all happy for you. Even though you kept insisting that you still had something to prove; I had always reminded you that as far as I am concerned personally, you have nothing to prove to anybody in Nigeria as far as your God-endowed talent in football was concerned.
The day you had anything to prove, I told you, was that day in Enugu when, virtually unknown, you sneaked on to the national scene and stole the show.
I remember that day very well. It was the day Nigeria needed a win over Algeria to regain its badly depleted confidence. Algeria had remained Nigeria’s tormentor on the field of soccer, since that afternoon on March 22, 1980 when one of the best right wingers this nation has ever produced and now my business partner, Segun Odegbami and his jolly good friends, won for Nigeria the Cup of Unity with two of Odegbami’s goals completing a 3-0 white-wash of the Algerians.
I remember sitting glumly in the NTA Studio that afternoon and telling my friend, Akinloye Oyebanji, that I didn’t know why Nigeria was taking the risk of fielding you when we didn’t know much about you and you joined the team only a few days to the big match.
But you did not only make me eat my words, you practically forced them down my throat by providing one of the best performances I’ve seen any Nigerian player put up in recent times.
Although, you never learnt of this until death suddenly claimed you that saddest of all Saturdays, it was on that occasion that I promised myself I have got to know you better.
Being such an innocent, unassuming and precocious young man who has achieved quite so much both in education and in football within such a short time (you were 25 years and 85 days old when you died), it was not difficult for us to become friends.
In one of the few letters we exchanged during the short span of my friendship which I had every hope would last longer than it has now turned out to be, you put into words the memorable lines that you wrote to me in a personal letter.
You believed so much in this country. You believed we could and should be in Italia ’90 World Cup. And you were ready to do anything and everything within your means to contribute.
But only on one condition that we invite you home properly as we were inviting other professional players. All the times you had played for Nigeria, you insisted, it was you who had always made the approach, as if you were begging us to put you in the team, as if you were an alien trying to impose yourself on us.
You were so resolute in your decision not to play for Nigeria again unless we met your condition. So we did.
And what happened? You just dazzled us with your performance … and before we could even have the chance to say thank you, you were gone!
Where, for God’s sake, am I going to see you again, my dear Sammy. Where?
Your transition played a big trick on me, I must confess.
All morning, before the big kick-off against Angola, I was so excited. Football had departed from the National Stadium for almost two years and it was making its glorious return along with you.
So I thought. For, you won’t believe this, several hours after you had breathed your last, I sat up in my room at about 4 a.m. on Sunday morning fooling myself by casting a headline that says “Okwaraji’s Glorious Return” for the cover of the next edition of Complete Football.
Can you imagine such stupid play with useless and irrelevant words at a time I ought to have been mourning your death?
But then it was NOT entirely all my fault for not learning of your passing away early enough.
So how did it happen?
National Stadium on that day was filled to capacity, and seeing the trouble I went through before getting into the stadium with my little daughter, I decided to leave for home at half time to watch the rest of the game on TV and save my little girl the hassle of being pressed among the teeming crowd who, I was certain, would be so excited even if only Stephen Keshi’s professionally-headed goal was to be the winning goal of the day as it finally turned out to be.
What also contributed to my early departure was the rate football fans were collapsing like nine pins, all of them in only one area of the pitch as if they were breathing a polluted air that was not circulating round the pitch.
I found that odd and Hillsborough where over 90 Liverpool fans died in one of Britain’s worst football tragedies, began to loom large in my mind.
I had seen the National Stadium filled beyond its normal and abnormal capacity before.
But never had we experienced what happened last Saturday.
I mean, let’s face it, the crowd inside the National Stadium on Saturday, August 12, 1989 was NOT up to the one that watched Nigeria lose 2-0 to Algeria in a World Cup qualifier on Saturday,October 10, 1981.
Neither was the confusion and excitement of that day anywhere comparable to that unforgettable afternoon in 1981 when we effectively sealed our hope of appearing in the 1982 World Cup finals held in Spain.
As I rode back home, I still nursed the dream of our night out at NiteShift.
It just took me enough time to reach the house and witness your being stretchered off the pitch
I have seen players leave the pitch like that so many times in my life the least thought that came to my mind was of death.
But when Dahiru Sadi was sent in as a replacement, I just told myself that our NiteShift date was definitely off because I could never ask you out to a nightclub with what I thought was a minor injury.
So I planned the following note to my friend, sending it through his daughter who had come to visit me.
The note read thus:
NiteShift is off!
Thank God we won.
That was it. I would surely see you on Sunday, I assured myself.
The next morning, Ayo, my brother, brought the sad news, when he came home with that morning’s newspapers.
And that was how the Obazu-Ojeagbase’s family went into mourning the loss of a dear friend.
Olu’s note came later. It reads …
Accept my deepest condolence on the passing away of dear friend, Sammy Okwaraji. As I sit and write this all I see before me is the sparkling, humble and easy going Sam when we met Friday night.
May God accept his soul. Amen,
I’ll see you before noon. Olu
When a loved one dies, one is sometimes apt to expect everybody around to feel the same pain.
So, I may be wrong in my assumption that we should have postponed, by just another 24 hours, the opening ceremony of the 1989 National Sports Festival.
I just couldn’t imagine us pretending out there the following day as if it was an Angolan, and not a young Nigerian, who died in order that we may achieve one of our highest dreams in football, that fell at the field of battle.
By alluding to an Angolan, I didn’t take that to mean that an Angolan’s life is lesser in value to that of a Nigerian. But, at least, we can claim, as we human beings often do, that the Angolan is a distant relation.
But Sam Okwaraji was our son. One of our brightest sons. One who had dreams of making our country great through football. I thought he deserved such honour.
But I speak as a personal friend and my view may have been myopic because of our personal relationship.
The least we can do here we shall. And that is to immortalize his name in a way.
How that can be achieved I will leave to the faithful readers of this magazine who, I am sure, can always come up with beautiful suggestions of the best way to achieve the noble aim of immortalizing him.
SAM OKWARAJI deserved no less.
As I join the readers of COMPLETE FOOTBALL in wishing our dearest friend, Sammy, adieu, here is praying that his aged mother and the remaining members of his family will be able to bear the cruel loss with fortitude.
SEGUN ODEGBAMI ON SAM OKWARAJI
I never met him face to face during his short but remarkable soccer ‘adventure’ in Nigeria. He had always struck me as different – uniquely different.
From the blues he emerged, declaring himself good enough to represent his country. Where others scorned invitation to the national camp, he put his huge professional credentials aside, and volunteered to play for Nigeria. He never demanded anything in return but the wish to put on his country’s colours of green and white.
In less than one year, he rose to gain the respect of every soccer buff in this country.
For me, there is no greater patriotism than that demonstrated by Sam Okwaraji.
I was working on my write-up for this edition of COMPLETE FOOTBALL when news of his death hit me like a stab in the back!
Everything become a blur! My mind could not accept it as true. My brain simply just failed to function.
My pain was accentuated because I suddenly realised I didn’t know him well enough to be able to write much about him. Often, my partner, Sunny Obazu-Ojeagbase, who had a close relationship with him would tell of their meetings and of a special arrangement they were making to ease some of our problems. He must have been a wonderful personality, for, definitely, he was a first class football player.
He represented for me the new generation of midfield players with a very good foundation in football. Good techniques all round. Great vision! Impeccable style and finesse. And (God bless him) a true patriot!
I share the grief of his death with millions of soccer followers in this country and pray that his death would be taken as a worthy sacrifice for the growth of a sport for which he lived and died! Adieu Sam.
WHEN THEY HEARD HE DIED…REACTIONS BY OKWARAJI’S TEAMMATES
STEPHEN Keshi and Ademola Adeshina were relaxing in the lobby of Sheraton Hotel after Nigeria had beaten hard-fighting Angola in a tension-soaked World Cup qualifier.
Both players were reviewing the match, talking about Keshi’s solitary winning goal which keeps Nigeria on the path to Italia ’90, and speculating on what could happen in Yaoundé August 27 when they play Cameroun in a match that would decide the qualifier from African zone Group C. None of them had a premonition of the tragic news that was on its way to them.
A young soccer fan sauntered into the hotel lobby, sighted them and went over. He told them in a hushed tone: “You know what, Sam Okwaraji has died oh!”
The two players’ reaction was instantaneous. Keshi in particular, was furious. “Will you shut your mouth,” he told the innocent fan. “If you don’t stop spreading such wicked rumours, you’ll be in trouble.” The fan scampered off, afraid.
Keshi and Adeshina, however, grew restless on the ‘rumour’ they just heard. “Could it be true?” they wondered, and left the lobby in search of the truth about Okwaraji ’s condition, hoping that they’d been wrongly informed. It wasn’t long before they got ‘reliably’ informed about the truth. Their colleague was no more. Both players became speechless.
Messers Clemens Westerhorf and Jen Udiense, the two new national teams Dutch coaches, however, recovered their nerves on time on hearing of Okwaraji death.
Both of them are Catholics, and immediately, they summoned some players with whom they conducted a catholic mass for the departed soul of Sam Okwaraji.
The following day, Sunday, many of the players gathered in Keshi’s room to discuss what their next line of action should be. They toyed with the idea of withdrawing from the World Cup in honour of Okwaraji, but some of them reasoned that even the late Sam wouldn’t have endorsed such an idea. He wanted Nigeria to play at the World Cup and lost his life in the process. The pursuance of that goal shouldn’t now be discarded.
And so the players resolved to continue the World Cup chase, albeit with greater determination so that the dream – ticket to Italia ’90 – which Okwaraji fought and died for would be realised and dedicated to his departed soul.
Naturally, some of the foreign-based players expressed fears that their families may not approve of their coming to play for Nigeria in future. But rather than carve in under such pressures, some of the pros have decided to bargain and insist on very strong insurance policies from government before playing subsequent matches.
With their well-being insured, they feel they can even die for Nigeria in action rest assured that their families would be well compensated.
“Whether we play football or not, we’ll die anyway,” said one of the players.
“I still find it impossible to believe that Okwaraji is dead. After playing with someone in a football match, you can imagine my shock on hearing two hours later that the person was dead. Worse still, the match we played against Angola was below par. Nearly all of us performed badly and we were only lucky to have won. If I had my way, Nigeria would withdraw from the World Cup in honour of Okwaraji. It is particularly sad that the guy had to die just when he landed the biggest contract in his playing career with Antwerp in Belgium.”
“In my opinion, Sam Okwaraji’s death is the gravest thing that would happen to Nigeria’s football. How could he just die like that? I still find it difficult to believe.”
“I wouldn’t know whether an Angolan player hit Okwaraji because I wasn’t looking at him all the time. But when I turned and saw him fall, I knew immediately that he was in great danger. I tried to lift him and he slumped back. Then I called for medical assistance and they came to take him away. Apparently, none of us thought Sam would die like that, and that was why we continued the match with a settled mind. But when the news of his death reached us at the hotel it shattered me personally.”
“I find the whole thing most unacceptable. I hear government is setting up a body to probe Okwaraji’s mysterious death. I think they better come out with something satisfactory or else, you will find that nobody wants to play for this country again.
Benjamin Okorogwu of the Rangers International team also died in the national camp under equally mysterious circumstances. And up till now, they did not tell us what killed Benjy. I hope the same thing would not be repeated in Sam Okwaraji’s case.”
A YEAR LATER at Sam Okwaraji’s first year post-humous remembrance ceremony in August 1990, Complete Football again spoke to some of his former teammates…
‘Ever since I knew Sam (we met in Port Harcourt in 1979), he never spoke to me the way he did thirty minute before the match against Angola. His speech inspired me to play well in that match and contributed to my saving a penalty. Up till this moment, nobody has been able to build my confidence like Sam did. It is painful that he is no more.” – David Ngodigha, Sam’s personal friend and national team-mate.
“During one of our training sessions before the match against Angola, Sam called me aside and told me he liked my game. From then, we became very close. This has made me miss him a lot. To me, it seems like he has gone back to Belgium and will soon return.”– Bala Ali, Sam’s personal friend and national team mate.
“My wearing the No 6 jersey at the Algiers ’90 Africa Cup of Nations was an instruction from the coaches, there’s nothing bad wearing a hero’s jersey. Besides, whilst in camp, Sam and I contested for the same role and I think he was far better than myself, even though I tried my best.” – Thompson Oliha wore Nigeria’s No 6 jersey at Algiers ’90, the particular number Sam wore in his last match.
“Sam was a very social person, talented as a footballer and a motivator on the field of play.” – Christian Obi, national team-mate and Julius Berger goalkeeper.
SAMUEL OKWARAJI’S SUPER EAGLES STATISTICS
1-1 (9-8 pen)
Viefinein FC. (W. Germany
Searbrucken FC. (W. Germany)
Mannheim (W. Germany)
Hawriswica Selected (W. Germany)
W. Germany Olympic Team
World Cup Qualifier
World Cup Qualifier