HOW SAM OKWARAJI HIT THE LIMELIGHT
-BY FORMER NFA CHAIRMAN, JOHN OBAKPOLOR
Sam Okwaraji emerged virtually from the blues to stamp his presence in the Nigerian soccer scene in 1987, prior to which time, football fans had hardly ever heard his name. Former NFA Chairman Group Captain John Obakpopor remembers how he “discovered” the midfield wizard…
“WHEN I became the NFA chairman in 1987, I stumbled on a file which contained letters from footballers requesting to be invited into the national team camp. The late Sam had written about three of such letters, saying that he played for VSS ULH Stuttgart in West Germany. At this time, nobody at the NFA had done anything about it. I then wrote to him inviting him to come, but nothing was heard from him again.
On one occasion when I went to Spain via Germany, I met Nigeria’s former technical adviser Manfred Hoener who is a German and asked after Sam. He said he had never heard of him, but still, I felt the boy must be good, based on the strength of his letters. Then in December of that year (1987), I made a visit to Port Harcourt where Iwuanyawu Nationale’s team manager, Uche Ejimofor, told me of one player who was on holidays from abroad. He said the boy had trained with his team and he thought he was good for the national team. I told him to bring the player and he did. The player turned out to be Sam Okwaraji. I asked if he got my letter and I invited him to join the national team if he was willing. He said he was ready and right there, I gave him a letter to go to Lagos and join the team then preparing to meet Algeria for the crucial leg of the African Zone Olympics qualifying series.
“He made the team, performed brilliantly in the match, and that was how Sam became a house-hold name. We never had any personal relationship before this time. We only became friends from then on. Sam had a tremendous drive of patriotism and commitment to football despite his having had two law degrees(LLB and LLM). He had told me that he would quit active football in 1990 and commence law practice.
“We miss him, no doubt, but I think there are many like him out there if only they can be given the opportunity. Anything the government or the NFA does for Sam should be viewed as well deserved. They only show that such an amount of patriotic zeal in any endeavour as displayed by Sam will be recognized by government always.”
“WASKY PELE” – THE LIFE STORY OF SAM OKWARAJI
Biblically, we are informed that the ideal period of the average human life span is three scores and a decade – 70 years. Sam Okwaraji had barely gone one-third of the stretch when, at 25 years old, he answered the painful but inevitable call of death.
However, his life, though brief, was an eventful period characterized by remarkable amazing accomplishments for self, his family and his nation.
Early Childhood: Fifth in a family of seven, Sam was born in Port Harcourt on the 19th of May, 1964. But at the tender age of three, he lost his father David Okwaraji. From then on, the lot fell on his loving mother Janet who brought him up.
School Life: Sam commenced his primary education at the Santa Maria, new Zik Avenue Primary School, Enugu, Anambra State. Thereafter, he proceeded to Ntueke Grammar School, Ntueke for his secondary education. He, spent a brief three months there before moving on to Eziachi Secondary School, Eziachi-Orlu in Imo State where he graduated with the first set of student in the 1980/81 session. At school, he was easily singled out not only for his soccer prowess and academic brilliance but for his small size and frame. “Sam was so small then that on one occasion I had to punish a form three boy who bullied him when he was in form five” Mr. G.C Okpara, his former mathematics teacher recalls. Okpara further recollects that “Sam was soft-spoken and never made trouble. In fact, while he was here, the then Principal, Mr. F.E Iwuchukwu, who also taught Sam history, confirmed that he was his best history student.”
Stan Nnabuo, a student of the Institute of Management and Technology, Enugu, who was a school junior as well as hostel mate described Sam in his school days as one who was liberal, kind and generous to the younger students. Says Nnabuo; “Sam never beat us. And he had one unique way of walking then, a stylishly guyish, manner. You see, Sam had his own pride then, which he deserved. And because of his unique manner, we called him “Wasky” and for his ball play, we added Pele’ to finally get ‘WASKY PELE’.
Also while in school, Sam’s soccer prowess was known all through the locality. As confirmed by the school bus driver Mr. Orgor Nathaniel and his teacher Okpara, market and shops closed in Orlu on the day Okwaraji played for his school against neighbouring teams. Ogor recounts that “Sam used to sit on the front seat with me, and opposing teams used to dread Eziachi because of his presence. In short, he was such a crowd puller, and we defeated all other schools then.”
Breakthrough: Towards the end of his secondary school education, Sam was invited by the Boys Secondary School, Nkwerre which represented Nigeria at the World International Secondary Schools Football Competition in Italy, 1980. His exceptional performance at the competition not only helped Nigeria win the tournament, but also turned out to be the turning point in Sam’s life. That was because a talent hunter – one Mr. Bucci had spotted and penciled him down.
Upon graduation, Sam returned to Port Harcourt where he stayed with his uncle for several months before leaving for Italy in 1981, where he got admitted to the Catholic Pontificia University. After successfully going through the Language course within six months, he entered for Law and got his first and second degree by the end of 1985/86 academic year.
Meanwhile since 1983, Sam had played first team football for AS Roma at indoor level. But it was an amateur setting because he was still in the University and featuring for the school team. Immediately after his second degree in 1986, Sam turned professional. First in Austria, where he spent six months before quitting the club due to cheating and lack of sincerity on the part of the officials. The 1986/87 season met him playing in Yugoslavia before moving on to West Germany.
In 1988, he was signed on by FC Stuttgart but was loaned to VSS ULH for eight months, within which period he played his first game for Nigeria while holidaying at home.
Thereafter he signed for Frankfurt FC in Germany before finally landing the big one in Belgium with Berchem F.C Antwerp in 1989. As fate would have it, Sam died before the football season began!
OKWARAJI’S FINAL KICK….
THE heart-chilling news was first murmured by a football fan immediately Sam Okwaraji’s prostrate body was carried out of the National Sports Commission (NSC) clinic at the National Stadium in Surulere. “The guy is dead,” he announced sorrowfully, but nobody believed him. Nobody wanted to.
The fan, however, persisted: “Look, if you saw him when he was carried into that ambulance, you’ll agree with me that Sam Okwaraji is dead.”
That, perhaps, was the first statement of a tragic truth that Nigerians have now come to live with. Because the soccer fan who passed the ‘first’ verdict was no medical doctor, however, even Complete Football didn’t believe his judgement of what he saw. But, about an hour later, everybody’s worst fears were confirmed. Sam Okwaraji was indeed very, very dead.
Saturday, August 12, 1989 that was to end so tragically for Nigeria’s sporting history had begun in such a lively and electrifying atmosphere with thousands of football fans besieging the National Stadium to see, what was to many of them, their first international match after 18 months, a period during which the soccer main bowl had been under renovation.
The crucial World Cup match between Nigeria and Angola presented a fitting re-opening for the newly-laid pitch, and even the top brass of government were in attendance and Chief of General Staff, Vice Admiral Augustus Aikhomu, took the kick off. Signs of trouble, however, emerged before the match got under way. Because the stadium was overcrowded, spectators, especially those under the covered section, started shoving and throwing each other with grave consequences. Many were suffocated and trampled upon, and as the match kicked-off and wore on, the pitch medical personnel were engrossed in fetching dying spectators from the jam-packed stands. Many of them eventually gave up the ghost despite frantic efforts to revive them.
Meanwhile, the match continued albeit, with not-so-pleasing effects on the uncomfortable crowd. The Nigerian team wasn’t playing particularly well, the Angolans were unrepentantly rough off the ball, but frighteningly effective on it. Contrary to the expectation of fans, it wasn’t going to be an easy match after all.
A spontaneous cheer came when Nigeria won a penalty after an Angolan defender handled the ball in the area. But the cheer was short lived when Augustine Eguavoen missed the resultant penalty kick and Nigeria continued to falter afterwards.
On the dot of first half added time, Stephen Keshi sent the crowd wild with joy by powerfully heading into goal a free kick cross from Etim Esin. Nigeria 1, Angola 0. The match eventually ended that way, but not the events of the day.
During half time, an Angola player ‘invaded’ the deserted pitch to loosen up, but he was forcefully dragged out by uncompromising security personnel who resented his action just like the angry crowd. The same player was eventually sent off for rough play in the second half, and though he created a big scene, he was eventually forced to leave the area altogether. All these occurrences further heightened tension at the stadium.
All along, more suffocating spectators were being rescued from the stands and carried by ambulance to the NSC clinic. As the second half progressed and the Nigerian side warmed into the game, the crowd began to feel more at ease and were even looking forward to a second goal which was never to come. Instead, it was the unexpected that happened. The mysterious but tragic collapse of a Nigerian player, Sam Okwaraji.
The immediate cause of Okwaraji’s fall may ever remain a mystery. For one, the focus of majority in the arena was an Angolan player who was receiving medical attention with the referee standing by.
When Okwaraji collapsed and Samson Siasia who was standing by him at the far side of the pitch called frantically for medical attention, it wasn’t clear whether Okwaraji had been hit or not by an Angolan player who happened to pass by him a few seconds before Siasia turned to see him falling.
Fans who claimed they saw him even before Siasia did, however, reported that Okwaraji was shaking vigorously and foaming at the mouth before he fell into unconsciousness, a claim which the physicians later refuted.
Attempts to revive Okwaraji on the field failed and when the same proved futile later at the NSC clinic, he was moved into an ambulance on the way to the General Hospital.
That was the time the fan who passed the ‘first’ dead-verdict on the player saw him. Unfortunately, he was later proved right.
THE MEDICAL VERDICT, BY DR. AKIN AMAO
NATIONAL team head of health personnel, Dr. Akin Amao, was the first to observe Sam Okwaraji’s condition on the field of play before he was carried off in an ambulance to the NSC clinic, and latter to the General Hospital where the player was confirmed dead. The doctor here recounts the gory episode:
“I met the boy in great pains on the field. The way his good health had suddenly vanished and how his condition deteriorated drastically within a few minutes was alarming and baffling. His hand had paled, his eye popped, his pulse was slowing drastically and his cardiac respiration growing poorer and poorer with each passing second. All these signs told me there could be great trouble.
When we rushed him to the NSC clinic, we put him on oxygen to restore his deteriorating breath, but it didn’t work. It was then we transferred him to the General Hospital where he was confirmed dead.
I couldn’t diagnose his ailment immediately, but I was sure he didn’t collapse from exhaustion. My guesses, however, were that, he may have sustained an earlier internal damage which took time to take its toll, or he may have suffered a heart attack.
What made Okwaraji’s case more difficult to handle was the fact that we didn’t have his medical record which would have informed us on the kind of ailments he had or had been having.
Unlike the home-based players whose records we have through regular medical check-ups, we have no records on the foreign-based players because they come later to camp, thus not leaving room for proper medical examination before matches were played. Incidentally, the medical checks on the pros had been scheduled to take place before the match against Cameroun on August 27.
Its quite a big shock to me that Okwaraji died the way he did. It’s only when the autopsy report on his body comes out that the true cause of his death can be unraveled.”
OKWARAJI’S LAST PLANS…..
EVER-BUBBLING Sam Okwaraji never betrayed any sign of ill-health or weakness before the tragic football match which took his life. If the condition of any Nigerian player was a little suspect before the encounter, that player was Ademola Adeshina who, ironically, shared Room 331 with Okwaraji at Sheraton Hotel where they lodged on their arrival from Belgium four days to match day.
Adeshina narrates: “I was the one that suddenly took ill a day before the match. I can’t really say what went wrong with me, but I found that I couldn’t eat and I was very dizzy. Sam called the Hotel lobby for medical assistance and when the doctor came and took care of me, I became well again.
“It was then Sam called for his meal. He ate, rested and later, he went for a light workout. When he came back, all he was telling me was how we were going to defeat Angola and from there, Cameroun. He wanted Nigeria to qualify for Italia ’90 by all means, so he didn’t pass any opportunity to talk about it. He was full of confidence and rearing to go. A week earlier in Belgium. I played against Sam when our clubs engaged in a pre-season match.
“After the match, Sam took me and some of our Belgium colleagues in his new Mercedez Benz Car 190 model to his new home. We met his girlfriend and he talked excitedly about his 500,000 dollars contract with Antwerp. He also mentioned a 10,000 dollars bonus the club promised him if he helped them to division one next season.
“When we returned to Nigeria, I later over-heard Sam seeking advice from a reporter on how he could clear a Mercedez Benz car and two buses from the port without much hassles. He expected the vehicles to arrive by August 18, and I presume he wanted to sell them to make some money for his family. He was making plans to improve their comfort, but suddenly he dropped dead.
“The whole occurrence has been a great shock to me. A great shock indeed.”
Sam Okwaraji had made a lot of plans before he died. He revealed some of them to his brother, Patrick Okwaraji…
If wishes were horses, then beggars would ride, so goes a saying. Sam Okwaraji did have his dreams, plans and aspirations, but his death made them still-born. They died with him.
However, his numerous plans for self, family and community were partially revealed to elder brother Patrick who, though downcast with suppressed emotions, obliged Complete Footballa peep into Sam’s ambitions. According to him, Sam had a lot of plans on the drawing board…
Business: “He wanted to capitalize on his connections abroad. He had made contact already with a Belgian businessman who owned about five garages of cars and buses. His plan was to go into the importation of these cars and buses to Nigeria to aid the mass-transit programme.”
Family: “He planned to help his family develop some of its properties – like the land and houses we have in Enugu. Most significantly, he planned to assist our mother who isn’t doing too well now. His presence alone would have gone a long way in helping the family, particularly with his personal connections. As for me personally, being a graphic artist, we had agreed on starting a Printing Press. He was to bring in the machines, while I managed it on a partnership basis.”
Community: Stan Nnabuo, a member of the Umudioka community confirms that Sam had plans for the people, but he didn’t touch most of the plans before death came. “I do know that he planned to help build a secondary school, and also promised to give an undisclosed amount to help build our town hall.”
And says Mr. Ogor Nathaniel, Sam’s secondary school bus driver: “The day Sam saw me still riding my old bicycle; he stopped by and promised to buy me a motorbike. So on the day he died, you could imagine how I felt. His promise of replacing my bicycle just went like that. Sam also promised to donate some sports equipment to his alma matar. But death came too soon.”
“Some people want to sabotage me, otherwise, why on earth should they have made me play in a strange position? Moreover, just when I was adjusting to the game, I was substituted. I think there is some foul play somewhere.” – Sam Okwaraji, after aWorld Cup qualifier against Gabon in Enugu.
“It was not the system that made us fail in Seoul. The system is not important and I don’t know why people attach so much importance to it. It is only good players that win matches”. – Okwaraji on why the Green Eagles failed at the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games.
“Segun Odegbami’s articles are sensational, he is the type of person we need in Nigerian football. He is very courageous, intelligent and down to-earth.” – Okwaraji on Segun Odegbami.
“Nigeria should rely more on young players. I think that our performance in the last (1989) Junior World Cup 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. Nigerians are yet to see my best. This is just the beginning. You will see more of me very soon.” – Okwaraji after the Olympic qualifier against Algeria at Enugu in 1989.
“Sometime, four years ago (now six), I said in an interview in Italy that my three main ambitions were to finish my studies, to be a professional footballer and to represent Nigeria in the 1990 World Cup.” – Sam Okwaraji.
TIMELINE OF OKWARAJI’S DEATH
Epilogue: August 11: A day to the Nigeria –Angola World Cup elimination in Lagos, Sam Okwaraji declares: “I have come back for real. I am here to play football and we will beat the Angolans silly. I am prepared to play my heart out.”
August 12: Nigeria beats Angola 1-0 but Sam Okwaraji dies after slumping towards the end of the match.
August 13: Government sets up a probe panel to determine what killed Okwaraji. NFA sends a three-man delegation to his home town in Umudioka, Orlu Local Government in Imo State.
August 14: Sam’s relatives pack his belongings out of the Green Eagles camp at Durbar Hotel, Lagos.
August 17: Sam’s family is invited to claim the N50,000 life insurance benefits from Guinea Insurance company, the NFA’s insurance partner.
August 19: Medical tests carried out at the forensic laboratory at Oshodi, Lagos, rules out poisoning and drug use as probable causes of Sam’s death.
August 20: NFA leaves for Belgium to announce Okwaraji’s death to his new club, Antwerp.
August 26: The national team leaves for Cameroun for their decisive World Cup qualifier and vow to “qualify to play in Italy ’90 for the sake of Sam Okwaraji.”
August 27: Nigeria loses 0-1 to Cameroun in Yaounde and gets eliminated from Italia ’90.
Berchem Antwerp, Okwaraji’s last club demands compensation for his death, from the NFA.
August 29: Sam’s body lies-in-state at the National Stadium and later in the day, it is taken to his home town in Orlu, through Enugu and Owerri.
August 30: Government announces a N250,000 gift for Sam’s family. His brothers and sisters get scholarship promises. Sam is buried like a King at his hometown, Orlu, and three people died during the ceremony.
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