As I am writing this, I am struggling to plug a wall of emotions with a stoic face. General Kollington Ayinla’s Late Okwaraji which has filled my room with its sober and somber lines is not helping matters. Hmmm….there is no way one will tell the story of SAMUEL SOCHUKWUMA OKWARAJI without feeling the pain of the loss gnawing at your heart, and as your head swells with patriotic pride, your lacrimal glands conspire to betray you. For millions of Nigerians, the most fabled soccer player is none other than this gentleman. Many grew up listening to incredibly woven and mesmerizing story of how he gave up the ghost while Nigeria was playing against India.
After Nigeria had defeated India by a world-record-breaking 99-0, and were on the verge of making it 100-0 and completing the humiliating defeat of the Hindus, they decided to summon their magical powers. Then the horror started. Within a matter of seconds, the Indian goalkeeper transformed into a lion and the football turned into a rock-hard stone, both of which were visible only to Okwaraji.
But Okwaraji was unrelenting, he wanted to score. Then he kicked the ball of stone. Well, you know the rest of the fantastic lore. Whoever came up with such a brutally false but imaginative story deserves more than 99 knocks. On the other hand, the story and the circumstances of his death turned Samuel Okwaraji into the most fabled footballer in Nigerian history. It’s been over two decades now since he slumped and died while proudly representing our dear nation. I am sure I am not the only one missing the footballing genius from Umudioka community. This piece is in his honour and memory. For the labours of our heroes past shall not be in vain…
BIRTH AND EARLY DAYS
Sam was born on the 19th of May, 1964 in Umudioka Orlu, Orlu Local Government Area, Imo State, Southeastern Nigeria. His father, Mr. David Okwaraji worked with the defunct Nigeria Airways as a Duty Officer with the mother, Lady Janet Okwaraji being a retired school headmistress. Both met at Port Harcourt, Rivers State where he was working as a Produce Examiner at the Produce Board and courted for about 3 or 4 years before marriage in 1950 and had seven kids. They lived together for just nine years before the Nigerian Civil War broke out during which he died, five boys, two girls. Sam was second to the last.
According to his mother, Sam had a very active childhood and played various games while growing up. Football was one of them while table tennis was another. However, he seemed to enjoy football more. His mum stated that he was quite hardworking right from primary school and because he was quite intelligent, he was jumping classes, and according to her, he was the most intelligent of all her children. But unfortunately, he lost his father at a young age, even before he was admitted into secondary school.
-He attended WTC Practicing School, Enugu for his primary education then proceeded to Ezeachi Secondary School, Orlu, Imo State. Later, he went to Federal Government College, Orlu where he was with the very first set admitted and had a brilliant academic performance there. A serious-minded chap, he bagged both Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in International Law, and yes, he could speak five languages -English, German, Italian, Spanish and of course, his native Igbo. Give it to him, he was an intellectual giant -flawlessly combining academic rigours with footballing talents. According to his mother, Sam could be a lawyer and a footballer at the same time but he believed playing was a better career path for him. Sorry, lawyers…lol
A talented midfielder wearing the Number 6 jersey for Nigeria, Okwaraji had an eventful soccer career albeit a very short one. During the 1988 Nations Cup in Morocco, he blasted one of the fastest goals past the Cameroonian goalkeeper -all within 60 seconds! He was later named the Most Valuable Player (MVP) -twice.
His mother narrated how he got to start his footballing career: I was lucky to meet a friend of mine whose son was going to Europe. But I knew it would cost a lot of money to send children to Europe so I went to her and made enquiries after which she told me everything about it. I gathered the little money with me and asked if my son could also follow hers to Europe. I felt that he was so brilliant that letting him stay here was a waste of time. So I had to send him. (Abiyamo, o ku oro omo o…Olohun a je ki gbogbo ikunle Abiyamo jere wahala won o, a de nu omije Mama Samuel Okwaraji nu).
He passed his West African Secondary School Certificate Examinations with flying colours and got admission to the Sapienza University of Rome (Sapienza – Università di Roma) which is the largest European University by enrollment, is regularly ranked the best of universities in Italy and remains among the top 3% of universities in the world. Samuel Okwaraji studied law at this great citadel. Upon getting to Europe, it did not take a long time before he started displaying his soccer skills and was soon sported by football scouts and was promptly signed up in 1984 at the age of 20 by Associazione Sportiva Roma (AS Roma) a professional Italian football club in Rome, Italy. Over time, he would play for the following clubs too:
-NK Dinamo (Građanski Nogometni Klub Dinamo Zagreb), Zagreb, Croatia. Here, he scored a hat trick in one of his matches with NK Budućnost Hodošan (now NK Hodosan) on the 30th of April, 1986. Dinamo actually won the match 12-0!
-VfB Stuttgart, Stuttgart, Baden-Wurttemberg, Germany.
6: His last match for the club was on the 29th of May, 1988 under Klaus Toppmoller. The match was against FC St. Pauli.
Later, he would be recommended to play for the national team by the former chairman of the Nigerian Football Association, Group Captain John Obakpolor (rtd). His very good friend and footballer, David Ngodigha said of his late friend in an interview with SuperSports.com:
“When Sam was in Rome studying and playing for AS Roma, I knew him well. Also there was another friend of ours, Bismarck, who was in Italy playing football too though he didn’t make the headlines like Sam did.”
The Nigerian Football Association requested his release from SSV-ULM 1846, his club, so he could come and represent Nigeria in the match but his club refused demanding that NFA pay a sum of $45,000 in gating fees which they’d lose if Sam did not play for them. Group Captain John Obakpolor, then the NFA Chairman decided to broker a deal for $15,000.
When Sam heard that the club was charging his country, he was very angry and charged at his manager for making such demands. Then he left these indelible words in the ears of his manager:
‘I am a lawyer and you know and I signed to play football for certain conditions but I don’t think it included reselling my services to my country. You or your club cannot stop me from playing for my country. Let me tell you, I am going to represent my country whether you like it or not.‘
And with those words, he left for Nigeria, a land he loved so much and gave his all to. He was actually among the very first players to arrive Nigeria (not today that you will have to be begging some players with bloated egos, and I didn’t mention anyone’s name o so don’t quote Abiyamo! LOL!)
Okwaraji’s mother was not too anxious knowing what he meant by ‘coming to play for his country.’ She said: ‘I wasn’t very anxious to know what it is playing for a country means. I was just hearing it for the first time as he told me, playing for your country, what does it breed. By then, he would have been qualified as a lawyer. But coming to play for his country, well I don’t know…He was very keen, very serious, very anxious to play for his country. He said that Nigeria has never come into World Cup, world map, that he wanted to bring Nigeria to the world map and I said you yourself would bring Nigeria to the world map, I didn’t know what it meant then…..he wasn’t the only one invited, others were invited but didn’t go because they said Nigeria was not giving them anything, any money…but Sam uses his little money to come down to Nigeria, they don’t send them tickets….’ she said with obvious sadness written all over her motherly face, very close to tears. Watch the full interview with Chinelo Bob-Okagbue, CEO of DiscourseMultimedia here:
On the 12th of August, 1989, while he was playing for Nigeria in a 2nd round World Cup Qualifier match (Group C, Italia World Cup) against Angola, Samuel Okwaraji slumped on the pitch and died immediately. It was 77 minutes into the match. Right there, in front of 20,000 Nigerians at the Main Bowl of the National Stadium, Surulere, Lagos, the Green Eagles were thrown into disarray while the Palancas Negras of Angola forgot the competition and joined in the futile attempts to revive him. His body was then taken to the National Stadium Clinic where he was covered up, and from there to the General Hospital.
The thousands of Nigerians who came to cheer him to glory left the stadium under a dark cloud of grief. Many would never forget that ominous day. It was just 10 minutes to the final whistle. Okwaraji was 25. Autopsy revealed he died from high blood pressure-induced congestive heart failure (which occurs when the heart is unable to provide sufficient pump action to ensure enough blood goes round the body). His heart was discovered to be enlarged -not a good sign in medicine. Okwaraji literally played his heart out for Nigeria. He had just signed a $500,000 contract with Berchem FC of Antwerp, Belgium.
Upon hearing the sad news on the 12th of August 1989, the entire Umudioka Community in Imo State was thrown into understandable sorrow and mourning. Umudioka had just lost one of its brightest stars. But you know, as the saying goes, there is no place like home. The saddened and bereaved people of the community came together and organized a most befitting burial for a true Nigerian hero. The Traditional Ruler of Umudioka, Igwe Solomon Nwafor Chukwunulu (Ezedioka I), now of blessed memory, co-ordinated a very impressive event which ensured that thousands of Umudioka children at home and abroad came home to honour one of their own. The Igwe was supported by other prominent figures in the community, like Chief A. N. Onyejegbu, the Ide of Umudioka, Chief Fidelis Ejiofor, the Ichie Ezeyim and many others. Photos below show where Okwaraji is buried:
LEGACY AND REMEMBRANCE
Millions of Nigerians mourned his passing with many musicians like General Kollington Ayinla and Oliver de Coque waxing songs in his honour. On the 12th of August, 2009, Governor Babatunde Raji Fashola of Lagos State unveiled a concrete bust of Samuel Okwaraji in the Rededicated Memorial Garden in his honour in front of the same stadium where he died. The structure is about 7ft high and is placed on marble but as at September 2012, the whole place was already overgrown with weeds and trees which obscure the bust from sight of passersby Yes, you gerrit, no maintenance. It was to mark the 20th anniversary of his passing. Governor Fashola said of him:
‘Literally, Sam was ready to die for his country and I believe he demonstrated that before he died and by the circumstances leading to his death.’
See photo below:
In 2012, In Sammy Boots, a sports movie was made in his honour by 360 Degree Entertainment. The movie was specially made for children. Former NFA Chairman, Captain Obakpolor was so moved and touched by Okwaraji’s patriotism that he proposed that the 12th of August on which he died be made a National Patriotic Day. His mother today expresses her pain and agony, over two decades after the death of her son:
That has been my pain all these years…they did not do anything to immortalize that boy…he gave his life, gave his money, gave his education…everything…for his country….he slumped at the National Stadium…if you go there now, you will his skull on the gate (referring to the bust), is that the way to immortalize him? They should re-immortalize him because he deserves it because he is a hero, he is a patriot. That is what I want….they should immortalize him, there are various ways they can do it..at least naming the National Stadium itself after him….he has done more than all of those big men…