Remembering Sam Okwaraji 30 Years Later
Though the weather advisory for Lagos on Saturday, August 12, 1989, suggested a hot sticky day many a Nigerian soccer fan would soon remember it as cold, grey and unforgiving. And who could blame them? First of all, came the unfortunate sequence of events off the field. Recently refurbished and still basking in a fresh coat of paint The National Stadium was being tested for the first time in its new FIFA approved version which had 20,000 fewer seats - something that seemed to have slipped by the phalanx of host officials. Shame!
I say this because despite being dressed up as merrily as a communal hut during a New yam festival, these much smaller specs as now handed down from Zurich were simply ignored and crucial safety devices like stopwatches and individual counters were discarded for folded Naira Notes by the legendary corrupt security men bent on maximizing every square inch of the stadium. It was business as usual. Soon, of course, a bottleneck would rear its ugly head, tear gas would be unimaginably released and the unavoidable would happen and just like a stampede of mad cows at least 7 fans would be killed on a day that their only crime was to come and glorify Nigerian football
Meanwhile on the field below things did not look any brighter. Sure the game may have been an important World Cup qualifier for Italy 90 but no one seemed to have told either team. Despite a shocking 2-1 defeat to minnows Gabon just weeks earlier in June, the Eagles seemed clueless as to the ferocity with which arch-rivals Cameroon were eyeing that same solitary Group C seat. And it would cost them dearly.
As usual, Nigeria had promised everybody James Bond but was now delivering Amitabh Bachchan. Sure the choreographed footsteps may have looked nice and sexy but they lacked the substance of anything serious and making matters worse, the Angolans were not cooperating with the subtitles they were supposed to provide. Instead of being willing participants to a beautiful game, they were hawkish brutes who made it seem like fouls earned them extra Kwanzas at home. And Yellow cards? Probably instant “Senior Comrade” rank and status. I mean if you can find a better excuse for the nine cards issued within just 90 minutes - then please tell me.
Nigeria’s game was unimaginative, plain, tasteless, bland or simply put just plain dull. Her attack wilted over and over and soon the fans started to fume over the crimes committed both by Stadium Management against them in the stands and the ones on the field by the Eagles, not knowing that a bigger one – soon to rob them of their brightest ray - was just looming around the corner.
Within seconds Sam would clutch at his chest and fall to the ground never ever to regain consciousness.
It was made even sadder because the Eagles Sun was and had been up till that moment, the selfless dynamo Sam Okwaraji. Born in Orlu deep in the heartland of Igbo land in 1964 his accomplishments as a young lad are rather sketchy and blurred. Despite at least one of his brothers making a name for himself on the fabled green of the Bishop Shanahan Field where the cream of the LGA’S fought their bi-weekly Sunday battles, our Okwaraji comes up missing
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. In fact, writing about Okwaraji has been very difficult because (as I would soon find out while doing my research) next to the fable of “Mammy Water”, no other story has lent itself to the myriad of truths and untruths spawned as the one of our enigmatic “Rasta”. Separating fact from fiction has been one of the harder tasks as opposed to the normal fact-gathering process.
Did Okwaraji speak 7 languages? Did he shun water for Peak Milk? Was there ever a plot by a fellow Eagle to kill him? Did he have a Sampson like complex resulting in growing the country’s most recognizable dreadlocks next to Marley and U- Roy? Did he have 3 Law degrees? Did he take stimulants and did that result in his death? Did the Angolans poison him? Like I said while a lot of this is unsubstantiated speculation none is more questionable than the fact that he played for so many teams in so many countries in such a short time span.
What we do know is that records indicate that he never played with a young Klinsmann at the VfB Stuttgart but that he was an indisputable part of the success of the German 2nd Division team SSV-ULM 1848. We also know that he had just signed a $500,000 contract with Berchem of Antwerp within weeks before that fateful day in Lagos.
“Chukwuma” Sam’s middle name means “God knows” in Igbo and never has a name been more appropriate because for quite a while only God would know for sure what exactly killed good old Number 6. While it would take months for us to know that his death would be cardiac related, it would take actual years later when the Indian Times would attribute Okwaraji’s death to the exact same heart defect that felled American Basketball Star Hank Gathers and later on Cameroon’s Foe giving us finally, a non speculative cause of death
In a time when most of Nigeria was filled with inflated egos and bloated self-imagery Okwaraji was a selfless no-nonsense player with no need for an iota of motivation. While we can't link him to many spectacular eye-popping creations on the field except plain consistency day in and day out, the few we do have of him are forever burned in our retinas. The most notable in my humble opinion remains the fastest goal of any ANC tournament when he blasted a heat seeker past Cameroon’s motionless Goalkeeper in Morocco all within 60 seconds. ( watch goal here) In that same competition his gargantuan but flawed heart combined with almost reckless abandon for self, got him named MVP…… not once but twice in a row for “Team Nigeria”.
Gone at only 25, 30 years later Okwaraji’s name is revered and never spoken in anger - a testimony of the collective love and admiration of both friend and foe be it in Africa or Europe. Rather it tends to serve as a catalyst in conversations that try and focus on the shortcomings of both FIFA, CAF and the NFA and what they did and didn’t do to ease the pain of the Okwaraji family. When we compare what was done for the Foe clan years later we can safely conclude that absolutely nothing was done in "Ever Ready" Sam’s case and can only pray that in hindsight, someone or organization will realize this horrible mistake and be shamed into rectifying it regardless of how late.
Until we start fully appreciating both our fallen illustrious sons and daughters better, Nigeria may remain stuck permanently at Number 3 in Africa Football wise - blessed with an abundance of skill that won't let her slip away from sight of Number 1, but cursed with a Management that won't let her actually achieve it and bearing testimony is Sam from his grave.
RIP Sam Chukwuma Okwaraji 1964 - 1989