On the 12th of August, 1990, tragedy struck the country’s soccer fraternity as the nation’s senior football team, the Super Eagles, dramatically lost a rising soccer star, Samuel Okwaraji to the cold hand of death.
Okwaraji’s sad demise occurred right on the soccer pitch during a 1990 World Cup qualifying match, against Angola, at the mainbowl of the National Stadium, Surulere, Lagos.
His death shocked many soccer loving fans across the world.
It was so painful that such a bundle of talent, energetic and mercurial midfield maestro could slump and die on the field, just like that.
Though the Super Eagles eventually won the match 1-0 courtesy a late Skipper Stephen Keshi’s goal, Okwaraji’s tragic death cast a huge shadow over the victory.
The Umudioka Orlu, Imo State, born soccer star, who was then plying his football trade in Germany with VfB Stuttgart, made his Super Eagles debut on the 30th of January, 1988, at Nnamdi Azikiwe Stadium, Enugu, in the second leg of the final Olympic qualifier for the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games against the Desert Warriors of Algeria.
It was that game that announced the arrival of Okwaraji to the big stage as a promising and invaluable soccer asset to the national team.
Without a doubt, Okwaraji brought something fresh to the Super Eagles.
He was strong, quick, energetic and visionary.
No wonder, he was to later become an integral part of the national team.
He was in the Super Eagles team that represented Nigeria at the Seoul Olympic Games in 1988 where he gave a good account of himself.
It was, however, at the 1988 African Nations Cup tournament, hosted by Morocco and tagged: “Maroc ‘88 “, that Okwaraji effectively proclaimed himself as the continent new soccer star.
He shone brightly at championship with his sublime performance that helped the Super Eagles got to the final, losing narrowly by 1-0, and in a most controversial fashion, to Cameroun.
At the championship, Okwaraji scored the fastest goal of the African Nations Cup, till date, in the 89th second.
It was a thunderous left-footer volley that saw legendary Cameroonian goalkeeper, Antoine Bell, scampering helplessly across the goal post like a baby who was searching for his precious toy! While it is true that Okwaraji was one of the nation’s finest and most imaginative footballers ever, it was, however, not only his soccer artistry that endeared the soccer prodigy with a Rasta hairdo to Nigerian soccer fans.
Unlike some of his contemporaries who had over bloated ego, Okwaraji was humble and quite unassuming.
He never allowed his stardom to get into his head.
He was always among the earliest to report to camp and was not involved in any unnecessary controversy throughout his Super Eagles years.
Indeed, Okwaraji was a patriot to the core.
Unlike, a few of his colleagues who often placed the interest of their respective football clubs above national considerations, Okwaraji was always ready to answer national call.
At a time when the nation’s football house was cash stripped, he was alleged to have offered to bail them out by opting to pay for his colleagues air tickets.
Such was the depth of his patriotism.
This superlative and immensely endowed soccer star was unique in many ways.
He was one of the few Nigerian footballers that effectively combined soccer brilliance with academic excellence.
He was a qualified lawyer who had a master’s degree in International Law from the University of Rome and was reportedly on the verge of earning a PhD in the same field by the time of his heartbreaking demise.
To keep the memories of late Okwaraji alive, appropriate authorities should make efforts to immortalize him and other such fallen sports stars that had spent their most productive years serving their fatherland.
While it is commendable that the federal government gave Okwaraji a national burial as well as financial grant to his family and government scholarship to one of his younger brothers, so much could still be done by both private and public entities to keep celebrating this patriot who died in the service of his fatherland at a prime age of 25.
Tayo Ogunbiyi, Lagos