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It is exactly 8760 days since the exit of the country’s first football martyr. Goal pays tribute to the memory of the football impresario who died in service to the nation

By Shina Oludare

August 12, 1989 will forever be etched in the minds of football fans as one of the darkest moments in Nigerian football history. Without notice, death combed the sports scene and froze the hands of the golden boy of African football, Samuel Okwaraji.

Fans had thronged the National Stadium, Lagos, with the aim of watching the Green Eagles outshine a boastful Angolan side in a make or mar Italia '90 World Cup qualifier. Little did they know that an Eagle was threading the valley of death. As if the centre referee knew that match was going to be his last, he gave the dreadlocked star his own parting gift by showing him a yellow card for a needless tackle and with about 10 minutes left to play, this midfield impressio, who held in reserve his gavel of justice for a pair of soccer boots, bade the world goodbye as he slumped and died.

Samuel Okwaraji was to Nigeria what Pele is to Brazil and Maradona is to Argentina. He was an epitome of flair, commitment and doggedness and till his last breath, he gave his all for fatherland. Not minding whether his memorial bust at the National Stadium is polished regularly or left to the dictates of varying weather conditions, we must continue to eulogize this patriotic Nigerian who spoke seven languages fluently.

He was one of the many discoveries of German tactician Manfred Hoener in an era that is still regarded as part of the glory days of Nigerian football. He went for the tackles, aerial balls and in fact did more than his fair share of safe guarding the perimeter of the 18-yard box to earn himself a place in Nigeria’s first Olympic team in 1988. This enigma, who shared common hairstyles with Holland star Ruud Gullit, eternally played himself with amazing skills, into the consciousness of every Nigerian from the day he began his astonishing debut for the Eagles on January 30, 1988 at the Nnamdi Azikwe Stadium, Enugu.

Unlike footballers of today, he did not leave the football shores of Nigeria for the greener pastures of Europe to get a call-up to the national team. He was in Europe for something else entirely when his unrelenting passion to serve fatherland as a footballer got hold of him. He went to Europe to study Law and he earned a Masters degree.

It was at this juncture of indispensability at club side, Okwaraji's heart became so sore and the only healing medicine was to play for the Green Eagles. Though overlooked by national team selectors on several occasions, it did not kill his unending love to play for Nigeria. He soon had his chance to play for fatherland but his club would not hear of it. His club manager asked the NFA to pay an estimated cost of $45, 000 for their star player’s match bonus and an expected loss in the club's gate taking for the period in which he would be on national duty. Hearing about this agreement, this patriot hit back at his club saying: “I signed to play football for you on certain conditions, but I don't think it includes reselling my services to my country. You cannot stop me playing for my country and let me tell you, I am going to represent my country in the World Cup in Italy whether you like it or not and I would very much like for you to be there."

Unlike some players who today hold the nation to ransom on bloated winning bonuses and flight ticket refund, Okwaraji paid his way to play for Nigeria without asking for a dime. He would come to camp uninvited and beg the coach to throw the jerseys on the floor for players to fight for. It was this move that heralded the era of throwing the camp open. He was not afraid to put his career on the line for his country. He put his life on the line too.

Former national team coach Paul Hamilton told Goal: “Whether he was invited or not, he would travel down to battle for a place in the team even when he won’t be paid a dime. He is definitely a man to be remembered for all he has done for Nigerian football.  A foundation should be set in his honour to cater for the family he left behind."

At the Maroc '88 Africa Cup of Nations, he shone like a million stars and in the process was named man of the match twice and his wonder strike against Cameroon was an icing on the cake as it stood till date as one of the fastest goals in the African football fiesta. Okwaraji was committed to the true service of his nation.

For the love of Nigeria, Samuel Sochukwuma Okwaraji died at the National Stadium, Lagos from a congestive heart failure 24 years ago. He was aged 25.

Former team mate Etim Esin remembers the impact of his death on the national team's hope of qualifying for its first World Cup. “A very great footballer! He was the first player to wear a dreadlock in the national team which was strange to Nigerian football at that time. His death cost us the Italia '90 World Cup ticket because we were all scared to slump. I still recall that at the airport enroute Cameroon, Peter Rufai,[Richard] Owubokiri and some players dropped out,” Esin told Goal.

This love for country went beyond him on the pitch as he craved for a conducive environment created where up and coming footballers could express themselves and be recognized. And against the old order of picking players based on sentiments, he wanted a vibrant, agile and a resourceful national team in place at all times.

As we continue to talk and write about him, the questions begging for answer are: Has he been celebrated enough considering his selfless service to the country and circumstances leading to his death? Why is it a near impossible task for our football administrators to keep to their simple promise of resting his jersey number 6 among other pledges?

Well, like the Elton John hit Candle in the Wind, Samuel Okwaraji’s candle burned out long before his legend ever will.

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