Teammates, others remember Sam Okwaraji
• 26 years after
August 12, 1989 was a day many Nigerians looked forward to. That was a day when fans of the Super Eagles expect5d their darling team to put one more leg close to the Italia 1990 World Cup.
It was a day Nigeria was expected to beat Angola at the National Stadium, Lagos, which was then becoming the slaughterhouse of the national team.
Before that game, Nigeria had recorded a 2-0 defeat of Cameroun, complete with Kunde, Olleh Olleh, Djonkep Bonaventure, Thomas Nkono and the Biyik brothers, Oman and Kana, among others, at the Adamasingba Stadium.
Earlier, Nigeria had gone to Luanda to hold the same Angola to a 2-2 draw before a slight hiccup in Libreville, where Gabon defeated the Eagles 2-1.
The calculation was that a comfortable defeat of Angola would set the team in the right frame of mind for the final cracker in Yaoundé against the Indomitable Lions of Cameroun.
And so the stage was set for what was expected to be a memorable day in Nigerian football. However, the day became one of the saddest in the history of Nigerian football because although the Eagles managed a 1-0 defeat of the Angolans courtesy of an Austin Eguavoen penalty, the country got what it didn’t bargain in the death of midfielder, Sam Okwaraji, who slumped and died in the course of the match.
Today marks 26 years after Okwaraji’s death, but some Nigerians, who knew the dreadlocked cannot stop wondering what he could have achieved if he had lived to fulfill his potential.
Speaking to The Guardian on the late Okwaraji, former Super Eagles’ midfielder, who played alongside the star at the Seoul 1988 Olympics, Emeka Ezeugo, described the former Italy-based player as a quintessential patriot, who did everything possible to ensure he arrives camp on time. “He never complained even when things in the Nigerian manner was not being done properly.
I can remember that he even bought his own ticket just to come and play for Nigeria. “However, the unfortunate thing is that many Nigerians, especially those in sports leadership, have forgotten the sacrifices Okwaraji made for his fatherland.
You can just see this by visiting the National Stadium in Lagos to see what has become of the bust erected in his honour,” Ezeugo said. Another former national team star, Adegoke Adelabu, is of the opinion that the Okwaraji should always be celebrated by Nigerians, especially sports lovers to serve as encouragement for upcoming stars. “Celebrating Okwaraji is good for our football because it goes to show that people really care about their sports heroes, whether dead or alive,” Adelabu told The Guardian yesterday. “But at the same time, our football administrators should learn from his death to avoid a repeat of such calamity.
What I mean is that the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) should make it a policy for our young players to always go for medical checkup. There should be sound Sports Medicine in place in our society with qualified personnel. It will go a long distance in preventing such sad incident.”
He added: “Okwaraji was a true patriot, who wanted to prove to Nigerians that he was a good player, but unfortunately and cruelly too, he didn’t live to see his work appreciated by fans. He will continue to live in our memory.”
Like past years, Okwaraji’s 26th anniversary today (August 12), may go without any fanfare and remembrance service to honour the player, a development that Adelabu said is not good enough for the country’s football. Also speaking Okwaraji, NFF President, Amaju Pinnick, praised the patriotism and professionalism of the late star, saying he was an exemplary player worthy to be emulated by present footballers.
According to a statement by the NFF, Pinnick called Okwaraji’s mother, Lady Jane Okwaraji, to assure her family that their son did not die in vain.
The statement disclosed that Pinnick told Okwaraji’s mother, “Mama, there is nothing I can say other than to tell you to continue to take solace in the fact that Sochukwuma was a star for Nigeria, a name that no one has been able to forget no matter how much they tried.
He was the quintessential professional and patriot per excellence. “Please be rest assured that Sochukwuma will continue to be in our hearts and consciousness. He was a rare gem. I assure you that the NFF will continue to keep in touch with you.”
The NFF revealed that the portrait of the late midfielder would be displayed round the eight venues of the Federation Cup quarterfinals in remembrance of him: Enugu, Benin City, Neros Stadium, Oleh, Lokoja, Abuja, Ilorin and Makurdi.
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