33 years after, Okwaraji lives on

By Oviri Kelvin, Sports Editor

August 12 of every year will never be wiped from the memory of Nigerians, who witnessed the death of a great football maestro and 1988 Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) winner, Samuel Okwaraji, in a FIFA World Cup qualifying match against Angola.

The sad incident, which overwhelmed the entire football community with deep pains, was worsened when some Nigerians questioned why Okwaraji’s not happened the same way as Christian Erikson’s.

Erikson in the Euro UEFA 2020, collapsed on the pitch on June 12, 2021, after suffering a cardiac arrest that quickly resulted in a cardiopulmonary resuscitation which preserved the life of the midfielder.

Today, Erikson is alive after several months away from action, with an implantable cardioverter-defibrillator fitted into his system. He has since returned to action, playing for Brighton last season before sealing a move to Old Trafford this summer.

How, our football hero, whose name has transcended the lips of those, who witnessed his reign and sad incident on that fateful day at the Lagos National Stadium, Surulere, to the teenagers, who despite not being born then, have composed rhymes in his name to honour him.

Born on August 12, 1964, in Orlu, Imo State, Okwaraji started his youth career in Italy in AS Roma before he made his senior career in 1985-1986 for Dinamo Zagreb in Croatia. He had spells in Austria Klagenfurt, VfB Stuttgart, SSV Ulm, and K Berchem Sport before his untimely demise.

There is not a time when Nigerians recounted names of players that impacted greatly in the Super Eagles without the great Nigerian football icon’s name not being mentioned.

Friday, 12th of August 2022, 33 years after his demise from possible hypertrophic cardiomyopathy according to the autopsy report, Nigerians honour Okwaraji, though he has left, still resides in our hearts as a hero.

Accordingly, the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) have joined Nigerians to celebrate Okwaraji, describing him as a patriot who will forever remain in our hearts.

NFF also on its Twitter handle, expunged remarks from Okwaraji’s friends who eulogised him with heartwarming words.

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“It’s 12th August again, and we remember the patriotic Samuel Sochukwuma Okwaraji who died on this day in 1989. Forever in our hearts,” NFF tweeted.

Furthermore, on NFF’s tweet, the nation’s football governing body included two photos that contained the comments of different footballers and coach about Okwaraji at different periods.

“He told me back then that he had three ambitions in life and these were to play professional football abroad, obtain a doctorate degree in law and play for the Super Eagles,” Meinkeme Fekete, coach, Bayelsa United, said in 2007.

“He actually achieved each and every one of these things before he died,” the man who discovered Sam Okwaraji, added.

“Whatever confidence I have in my goalkeeping career today, Sam was instrumental to it. I’ll be grateful to him forever,” David Ngodigha said in 1991.

“He represented, for me, the new generation of midfield players with a very good foundation in football. Good techniques all around, great vision, impeccable style and finesse; and [he was] a true patriot,” Segun Odegbami said in 1989.

“None of us apparently 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,” Samson Siasia, said in1989.

“A patriot who never worried about what his country will give to him, but shed strength and sweat to the country’s glory,” Sports Minister, Tonye Graham-Douglas said in 1989.

Okwaraji was buried in front of National Stadium, Surulere, with this message inscribed on his tomb, “In memory of an illustrious and patriotic Nigerian sportsman late Samuel Okwaraji, who died on active service to his fatherland on the 12th of August 1989 in a World Cup qualifying soccer match between Nigeria and Angola at the National Stadium, Lagos.”

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