It was late in 1987 that a player appeared in training as the Eagles prepared for an Olympic qualifier vs Algeria. He came with an impressive resume which was later proven to be not wholly true, however, on the pitch he impressed Paul Hamilton and his assistants that he made his debut at the Nnamdi Azikiwe Stadium VS the Algerians. He lit up the game with his movement and skills. Samuel Sochukwuma Okwaraji had arrived as an authentic Nigerian star. The fans took to him immediately.
During the 1988 Maroc AFCON in which Nigeria lost narrowly in the final to Cameroon, Okwaraji confirmed his status as one player the country would be able to rely on. He started all the matches while his goal in the 2nd group match vs Cameroon was probably the best goal of the tournament. He also featured at the Seoul Olympics later that year spotting dreadlocks. The Nigerian team did not play so well and got tossed out of the group stage following 3 defeats.
On Saturday, August 12th 1989 Nigeria had a world cup qualifier VS Angola. It was the penultimate group game and the maths was quite simple for the Nigerians: Beat Angola, avoid a defeat in Yaounde against Cameroon in the final group game and then pack your bags for Italy and the World Cup. Simple, not easy.
It was a hot, sticky afternoon. The stadium was incredibly packed – crammed actually. There is no doubt that well over the allocated seats were sold. Many of those who attended the match still recall today the horrors of people being thrown around like rag dolls. Well before kick-off, bodies were laid on the running tracks even if they were later moved just before kick-off. The level of disorganisation has to be experienced to be believed.
The game itself was just as disorganised. The Nigerian team seemed uncoordinated and certainly not ready for the brutal tackling the Angolans brought onto the pitch. One of those their tackles was punished with a penalty awarded to Nigeria. Augustine Equavoen stepped up and shot tamely, keeper gleefully gathered, the Surulere crowd groaned.
Just before halftime Etim Esin swung in a free-kick, Stephen Keshi attacked the cross like an express train crashing a header into the top corner. Nigeria took the lead. That was as good as it got. In fact, things were going to get worse – far worse.
In the 2nd half in what was initially thought was an off the ball incident, Okwaraji fell and collapsed. Samson Siasia got to the fallen teammate first, bent over him then got up, hands on his head. That was an ominous sign. The medical team got onto the pitch but after a while signalled for an ambulance. Now there was an ambulance parked opposite. It wouldn’t start. Four ball boys were needed to push the ambulance van to start the engine so it could drive onto the pitch and pick the still stricken Okwaraji.
Eventually, they did, and just like life, the match continued. In a rare Angola attack, the Nigerian offside trap was sprung, keeper David Ngodigha brought the forward down and the visitors were awarded a penalty. Fortunately, Ngodigha pulled off a remarkable save to preserve Nigeria’s slim lead. In fact, the game ended 1-0.
This was a time long before the internet and wall to wall to wall news coverage. So it was not until the next day that news broke that Sam Okwaraji had died on the pitch. Stunning news. It was unreal. It felt like he had just appeared to tantalise Nigerian football fans just for a bit. It was too brief. And this manner of departure too dramatic, too tough to comprehend.
There have been many rumours as to cause of death but nothing has ever been confirmed by the authorities. The promise of a National Honour or the retirement of the No 6 jersey he wore that afternoon never happened – Thompson Oliha wore the number a few months later at the Algiers ’90 AFCON. None of these really matter. The facts are that Nigeria lost a truly gifted footballer and still the only footballer to have died wearing the national team colours. He will always be remembered by those who saw him play for Nigeria.
So on another August 12th, continue to rest in peace Sam Okwaraji and also the many other fans who died at the stadium that afternoon in 1989.