By Hugh Wragg
On 12 August 1989, Nigeria met Angola in Lagos in a critical World Cup qualifier.
Nigeria won the game 1-0, but were still unable to qualify for Italia ’90, losing their next game to Cameroon.
Despite their best efforts, Nigeria could not dedicate a successful qualifying campaign to the memory of Samuel Okwaraji. The midfielder had suffered congestive cardiac failure with ten minutes remaining of his country’s victory over Angola, and was dead before the final whistle sounded. He was 25 years old.
Samuel Sochukwuma Okwaraji was born in May 1964 to a large family in Imo State, south-eastern Nigeria. His father, an employee of the now defunct Nigeria Airways, and his mother, an esteemed school teacher; had seven children of which Sam was the second youngest.
Nigeria had become independent of British colonial rule during Okwaraji’s early years, and the turbulent nature of the nation’s development is reflected in his own story; Sam’s father was one of many casualties in the deadly Civil War of 1967-70.
Okwaraji lost his father at the time we form the some of the strongest parent-to-child bonds. The emotional impact was severe for him, however through his teenage years Okwaraji strived to make a success of both his schooling and sport, receiving a full primary and secondary education before moving to college in Orlu. He enjoyed an active childhood and regularly played football with his five brothers.
Alongside football, progress in the world of academia was central to Okwaraji’s life. Indeed, his break into football came as a result of his academic endeavours. He moved to study international law at the Sapienza, the University of Rome, completing both Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees.
Okwaraji later referenced his brother’s influence in his European move, one which he was sceptical of, owing to the financial impact it would bring on his family. Their encouragement of their younger brother was vital.
While undertaking his studies in the Italian capital, Okwaraji was also privy to the contrasting fortunes of AS Roma and SS Lazio.
The former, led by Swedes Nils Liedholm and Sven Goran Eriksson, were frequenting the later stages of European competition and collecting Scudetti titles; while the latter underwent a period of turbulence that only a Leeds United fan could empathise with.
Lazio collected just fifteen points in 1985-86, suffering relegation from Serie A, and almost fell into Serie C after a disastrous 1986-87 campaign in which play-off victories against Taranto and Campobasso saved their season. Set this on-the-field nosedive against a backdrop of betting scandals and ownership questions, and perhaps ‘contrasting fortunes of Roma and Lazio’ becomes a very reductionist statement.
Meanwhile, Samuel Okwaraji frequented University pitches in the city. His talent, first noticed and then nurtured during his school years as he played alongside his brothers, was now on public display for two of Italian football’s most famous names.
Well-built and supremely fit, Okwaraji had the physical attributes of an able box-to-box midfielder. These attributes also made him a competent central defender. Technically speaking, his European education was to prove hugely beneficial. Combative without the ball, composed on it, his reading of the game made him an asset for his teams as a robust central midfield player.
In 1984, Okwaraji graduated as a lawyer and was signed by AS Roma on professional forms. Roma had just reached the European Cup final, losing to Liverpool in their home stadium, the Stadio Olimpico. Although he never appeared for the Galliorossi, his time with one of Europe’s giants provided Okwaraji with a glowing reference.
He then spent time with Dinamo Zagreb of Yugoslavia, scoring a hat-trick on debut in a 12-0 friendly victory over NK Hodosan. He found his chances limited during his first season, appearing only once, before spending the 1986-87 season on loan at FC Kärnten of Austria. His performances in Austria engineered a move to VfB Stuttgart of the German Bundesliga, where he was immediately loaned out for the 1987-88 season to SSV Ulm 1846, then of the German second tier.
This was to be Okwaraji’s breakthrough as a professional, as he scored five in 28 Bundesliga appearances, including a notable brace against Fortuna Köln. Despite SSV’s relegation in 1988; Okwaraji made a significant impression upon Manfred Höner, then manager of the Nigerian national side.
Okwaraji, the qualified lawyer, was soon party to a legal wrangle of his own.
In January 1988, Okwaraji received his first call up to the national side for an Olympics qualifying fixture. However, his loan club – SSV – attempted to block the call up, demanding a significant sum from the Nigerian FA in order to let the player join up.
Okwaraji responded angrily to this development.
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.
He stuck to his word, and the threatened legal case disintegrated.
Okwaraji made his international debut in the Olympics qualifier against Algeria, a game which Nigeria won 2-0. The Green Eagles were now destined for Seoul.
But first, they were to compete in the African Cup of Nations. This was the campaign in which Okwaraji announced himself to adoring, fanatical Nigerian fans as they finished runners up. As football fans, we all elevate our heroes to a revered position. However, for Nigerian footballers, representing their national side sees them elevated further, to an almost religious position. The iconography and quotes attributed to Okwaraji after his death are testament to this.
Nigeria finished runners-up to a Cameroon side that two years later would find themselves within 10 minutes of the World Cup semi-finals. The two nations initially met in the group stages, where Okwaraji scored to cancel out a Roger Milla opener as a 1-1 draw was shared in Rabat.
After another draw with Egypt and victory over Kenya, Höner’s Nigerian outfit progressed to the semi-finals, topping their group. Nigeria met Algeria in Rabat, progressing on penalties (Okwaraji scored the first of Nigeria’s sudden death spot-kicks) to face Cameroon in Casablanca, where Emmanuel Kunde’s penalty edged a second tight encounter in favour of the ‘The Indomitable Lions’.
Okwaraji was now first choice in the Nigerian midfield and although he and his teammates lost all three games at the Olympics (0-4 vs Brazil, 1-3 vs Yugoslavia and 0-1 vs Australia), they gained the experience of playing against some of the world’s most talented players, including Claudio Taffarel, Jorginho and Romario who all appeared for a Brazil side managed by Carlos Alberto. Brazil would go on to win the silver medal, losing the USSR.
Okwaraji would play a total of 12 games for Nigeria. His final appearance, at the National Stadium in Lagos on August 12th 1989, would claim his life.
It was an extremely hot day. Water stoppages were essential. Despite Nigeria taking a first half lead, the soaring temperatures made the crowd restless.
Okwaraji gave a performance typical of his rising stature: energetic and combative, but also composed as he worked the space in between the banks of four.
Suddenly, without warning, he collapsed in the 81st minute. His heart had struggled to cope with both an incredibly high blood output and blood hypertension. Okwaraji lost consciousness was dead within the hour.
The death of Marc-Vivien Foé in 2003, and the well-publicised collapse of Fabrice Muamba in 2012 were both eerily similar events. Sadly, the numerous stories on this site are evidence enough that the football community has not educated itself to a suitable level around the complex matter of heart failure. More can always be done.
Samuel Okwaraji is still remembered and idolised by the Nigerian footballing community. As I have suggested, the religious reverence offered to footballers who represent the Nigerian national side is still served in the memory of Okwaraji.
A bust, standing seven feet tall, bearing these words stands outside the now defunct stadium where he lost his life also takes on almost military tone:
In memory of an illustrious and patriotic Nigerian sportsman; late Sam 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 National Stadium, Lagos.
It also touching and refreshing for international footballers to show some compassion; with examples of such connected to the story of Samuel Okwaraji. Both Seyi Olofinjana, and more recently Emmanuel Emenike have donated money to Okwaraji’s family.
Okwaraji epitomizes the spirit of a committed and heroic football star, and the shock of his loss is still as fresh today as it was in 1989. His legacy still lives on.
Olofinjana on the 20th anniversary of his death in 2009.
He sacrificed his life to the national team. He made the ultimate sacrifice for this generation of players and we need to show some support to the family. It is important to remember and honour our heroes.
Emenike; the Fenerbahce forward made a donation to the Okwaraji family after dedicating a winning goal against Erciyesspor to the memory of Sam.