by George Akpayen
August 12 will be 22 years after the death of Samuel Okwaraji. He died while playing for Nigeria in the 1990 Fifa World Cup qualifying against Angola at the National Stadium in Lagos.
Late Okwaraji collapsed with just nine minutes to the end of the game and was later confirmed dead on same day. Autopsy later showed that he died due to an enlarged heart and high blood pressure.
On this fateful Saturday, Okwaraji had lined up alongside David Ngodigha, Augustine Eguavoen, Sunday Eboigbe, Stephen Keshi, Obobaifo Osaro (now late), Ademola Adesina, Uchenna Okafor (now late), Humphrey Edobor, Etim Esim, Samson Siasia and Dahiru Sadi, who came on as a substitute for Edobor.
“It was a sad day for us back then,” former Nigeria playmaker, Esin recalled in an interview with SuperSport.com on Thursday. “Everything happened so fast and I can’t still believe it that few minutes before he died he was running alongside the rest of us on the pitch and the next moment we would never see him again because we were told he was dead.”
Sadi, now with the backroom staff of Kaduna United, said he remembers August 12, 1989 with nostalgic feeling.
He said the shock death of Okwaraji affected the Nigerian squad. Sadi still feels bad that the Eagles could not secure a place at Italia 1990 World Cup.
“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,” Sadi said before he left Nigeria for Abidjan with Kaduna United for their Orange Caf Confederation Cup game against Asec Mimosas.
And on August 27, Cameroon’s Indomitable Lions ended Nigeria’s attempt at a first appearance at the Fifa World Cup inside the 90,000 capacity Stade Omnisports in Yaounde with a 1-0 win.
Paul Hamilton, who was then part of the coaching setup, explained how Okwaraji broke into the Nigerian squad as a foreign-based player-cum-student.
“We had gone for a playing tour of Germany and the then Nigeria Football Association (NFA) chairman, retired Group Captain John Obakpolor paid us a visit at our training ground. He spoke to (Manfred) Hoener (then Nigeria’s head coach) and myself alone. He told us of a young Nigerian student who was schooling and playing football in Germany.
“The student turned out to be Samuel Okwaraji and immediately he was invited to join the camp. Okwaraji impressed me in his first training session and that was how he got invited for the preparation for the Maroc ’88 Africa Cup of Nations,” he told SuperSport.com.
Hamilton did not fail to pay tribute to the late Nigerian midfielder for the memories he left behind during his brief stint with the men’s national team.
“He was always among the first to report to camp before our matches. And you cannot miss his hard work and that impressed the coaches and that was how he made the team to Morocco. It was painful that he died just when he started his career.
“Even in death till date, he still remains a player who set a good example that present day players in the national team can learn from.
“I still remember his goal at Maroc ’88 from outside the box against Cameroon. It was a fantastic goal from a fantastic player. That was the kind of memory he left with many of us who knew him,” Hamilton said.
Before his death Okwaraji played about 10 matches for Nigeria and scored once. He made his debut against Algeria at the Nnamdi Azikiwe Stadium in Enugu in a Seoul 1988 Olympic qualifier.
He also 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 on August 12, 1989 in Lagos.