‘Samuel Okwaraji’s death cost Nigeria Italia ‘90 World Cup ticket’

A former team mate and an ex-coach of the national team recount how the death of the midfielder affected the country’s football as well as sadness at unfulfilled promises made

By Shina Oludare

Twenty six years after he collapsed on the pitch of the National Stadium, Lagos, and breathed his last, encomiums have not stopped pouring in for former Nigeria midfielder Samuel Okwaraji.

The 25-year-old fell down in the middle of a World Cup qualifier against Angola on August 12, 1989, only to be declared dead later in hospital as his team mates played on, oblivious to the fact that someone so full of life moments before had expired in full public glare in service to his fatherland.

In new interviews with Goal, former Nigeria star Etim Esin and former national team coach Paul Hamilton have spoken about the implications to Nigerian football development of the former midfielder’s death.

Esin even disclosed that Okwaraji’s death prevented the country from qualifying for the 1990 edition of the Fifa World Cup as other players became afraid that it could happen to them.

Almost three decades after the unfortunate incident, his former teammate recounts the effect of his death while insisting that the country has not done enough to immortalize him.

"He was a great footballer and very intelligent one. I think he was in the first set of footballers to wear dreadlocks, which was very strange in Nigerian football at that time,” Esin recounts to Goal.

"We were on the pitch together and it was after the game that we found out that he had passed away.  During the game [against Angola], he slumped, was rushed to the hospital and that was it.

"His death cost us the Italia ‘90 Fifa World Cup [ticket] because we were all scared as no one wanted to fall and die. When we were at the airport to board a flight to Cameroon, the likes of Peter Rufai, [Richard] Owubokiri and a couple of players dropped.”

Fifteen days later on August 27, the Green Eagles were defeated 1-0 courtesy of a Francois Omam-Biyik strike at the Ahmadou Ahidjo Stadium in Yaounde to end hopes of reaching the final African play offs for the World Cup ticket.

Okwaraji had played for Nigeria at the 1988 Africa Cup of Nations where he scored an early goal in the 1-1 draw with Cameroon in the group stage. His second minute goal was considered one of the fastest in the history of the competition at that time.

He also scored from the spot as the Green Eagles defeated Algeria 9-8 by penalties after regulation time ended 1-1 in the semi finals. He played in the final as Nigeria lost 1-0 to Cameroon in Casablanca.

Esin expressed displeasure that promises made after his death has not been fulfilled.

"No foundation on the ground, no benefits for the family, so pathetic. Even we the living ones are still going through the same thing fighting for a union that we can form into an umbrella and see what we can do.

"Foundations should have been set up so that his family can also benefit from the sacrifice he made for this country,” Esin said.

Hamilton, who was assistant to Dutchman Clemens Westerhof at the time, also extolled the virtues of the late midfielder who gave his all, including his life to the service of his country.

"He was a very good player who was always coming to the national team even when not invited or paid anything,” Hamilton told Goal.

"Okwaraji has left a very good legacy for upcoming youngsters to emulate because he was always determined and served as an epitome of determination and dedication aside from these, he gave his best for the country.”

Hamilton also advised that corporate bodies should take the initiative of celebrating him for all he did for the growth of Nigeria football.

"Some years back, the government of Lagos organised a memorial match to honour him where they invited all his former teammates which was a wonderful experience.

“I would like others to emulate this because Samuel is a man to be remembered for what he did for Nigerian football,” he concluded.

Okwaraji, who represented Nigeria at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea, is immortalized by a statue in front of the National Stadium.