On August 12, 1989, Nigerian international, Samuel Okwaraji, slumped and died at the age of 25 during a World Cup qualifier match against Angola at the National Stadium, Surulere, Lagos. Okwaraji played for different clubs in Europe, including AS Roma, NK Dinamo Zagreb, Austria Klagenfurt, VfB Stuttgart and SSV Ulm. One of his teammates, Etim Esin, goes down memory lane as he tells EMMANUEL OJO what made Okwaraji, who was a Law graduate, stand out
What year did you join the national team?
I joined the national team after the 1987 FIFA World Youth Championship that took place in Chile. I joined the national team in 1988.
Was the late Samuel Okwaraji a member of the team at that time?
Yes. He was from Imo State, somewhere in Mbaise.
He died in 1989. Yes, it was my generation.
Did you have a close encounter with him?
Yes, definitely. I used to call him Ruud Gullit and he called me Black Maradona. I called him Ruud Gullit because of his dreadlocks. He wore the No. 8 jersey, while I wore the number 10 jersey. We were all attacking midfield players supporting (the late Rashidi) Yekini, and (Samson) Siasia.
Will you say he was resourceful on the pitch?
Very resourceful! His death cost us Italia ’90. We all dreamt of it (going to the World Cup) and you know that he schooled in Rome. We used to go to his former city in Italy, so we all dreamt of going to the World Cup. It was a big part of his dream and my dream and that was what we talked about every time we were in the camp – that we were going to make it to the World Cup – because we had never qualified for it before then. It was a big dream for us. I don’t know about the rest.
After his death, a lot of people dropped out, even when we were going to play against Cameroon. Richard Owubokiri dropped out. Peter Rufai, I think, didn’t come. So, we took (David) Ngodigha and Alloy Agu. A lot of players dropped out because of fear of another death. As of then, we never knew what cardiac arrest was. Medically, we were not up there. Tottenham Spurs could have lost a player after he slumped on the pitch if there were no good paramedics and medical attention. I think technology now has gone far. Kanu Nwankwo could have slumped and died too if his heart problem was not detected on time. It’s just a big lesson that the young chaps should learn. It was a big pride playing for Nigeria; I don’t know what’s happening now.
When someone asked me which was the greatest match I played for Nigeria, I said it was against Angola when Okwaraji died. What match would be greater than that in which you lost your teammate? How many other teammates have been lost since then during active action on the pitch? I think that’s the greatest football match I ever played. It could have been me, Siasia, or any other person on the pitch. May his soul continually rest in peace.
How best can you describe the kind of character that he was?
He was very disciplined. We never knew what education was back then. He already knew how education would enhance his career even after football. That was what most of us are even crying for now. Like me, I go online to do courses on sports management and all that, because if you have an educational background, it helps. A question came up when I was in a forum of ex-internationals with older generations (of footballers) like (Felix) Owolabi, Segun Odegbami, Adokiye (Amiesimaka), and others. I asked them why their kids never followed in their footsteps, which is usually the norm all over the world. They said they had gone through a lot in Nigerian football and wouldn’t want their kids to go through that. They would rather give their kids the best education and leave the rest. It’s optional; they are not going to push their children to be involved in what made them suffer. So, you will know where they are coming from.
If you look at it from this perspective, many Nigerian ex-internationals do not have their kids out there (in football), compared to the kids of ex-internationals from other countries. Look at Abedi Pele; his two sons are doing well and playing very well, but we don’t have any from Nigeria, which is very sad. We may have some but maybe not very prominent, like (the late) Stephen Keshi’s kids, Odegbami’s kids, (Christian) Chukwu’s kids, Owolabi’s kids, and all that. It’s something very pathetic. Okwaraji was a very strong disciplinarian. He always told me that we should be disciplined. I was more of an outgoing, social person. I liked going out, partying and so on, but he was more low-key, very disciplined, and always focusing on the result we should get to qualify for the World Cup.
Were there other things striking that he was noted for as a member of that team?
It was just discipline and being a good patriot. He was too organised as a footballer. He was a player in a class of his own. The fame didn’t just get to him. Okwaraji didn’t want fame. All he wanted was to carry the Nigerian football team to another level. He believed that if Cameroon could qualify for the World Cup, we could also qualify. We had the zeal, we had the energy and we were so determined to get to Italia ’90. But man proposes and God disposes of it.
Sam Okwaraji wore dreadlocks. Were they natural or artificial?
They were artificial. If you see him in other pictures, he wore his low cut, afro, and other hairstyles before the dreadlocks. He just wanted to be different, because he was a different player. He was in a class of his own.
What was his relationship with the coach like?
I think Paul Hamilton was the coach at that time. It was during that era that plans were on to bring in (Clement) Westerhof. Okwaraji’s relationship with the coach was very polite, very respectful and much disciplined. I still remember when Paul Hamilton used to advise me to emulate Okwaraji, because he felt I was stubborn in the camp.
Was he married then?
He had a woman but I don’t know if they were officially married. But they lived together.
Did they have children?
I think the lady had a kid for him but I’m not too sure about that, because I don’t want to get involved in what I’m not sure about. But in Belgium, he was a very disciplined person with women. He wasn’t like me.
What other thing stood him out off the pitch?
He was a Law graduate; he was just different. How many of us in that squad were graduates? No one except him if I recall correctly. So, he was just a different person, minding his business. He didn’t poke his nose in people’s affairs. He just came, did his thing and gave it his best on the pitch. Even during training, he was dedicated, 100 per cent. After the general training, we practiced free kicks together for another 15 minutes. He was a true professional to the core.
Who was his closest friend in the team?
I think it was (the late) Stephen Keshi in the area of discipline. I was stubborn. Keshi and I never agreed. May his soul rest in peace. But all the advice he gave me came to pass in my football career. At that time when we were young, we thought people who gave us advice were just jealous and did not mean well. Keshi was older. He knew everything. He was the big boss.
Was it common knowledge among Okwaraji’s teammates that he was a Law graduate?
Everybody knew but he wasn’t the type that bragged about it or flaunted it. He was just a quiet, easy-going, nice guy that you could relate with anytime and any day. I think he had a Law degree at the time and was still studying for his Master’s, but he had a Law degree from a university in Italy.
Do you think he was more passionate about education than football?
He loved football more because I still remember that his club didn’t want him to play for Nigeria. They had to put a fee on him, maybe $50,000, and he questioned that decision, asking why his country should pay for his service. He had to take his club to court as a lawyer. He knew his rights, he knew his onions. That was how he got the clearance to come and play for Nigeria. He was a patriotic citizen. But there’s something about this country. It doesn’t immortalise people.
Look at Keshi! He helped us qualify for the World Cup, winning the Nation’s Cup as a player and as a coach. This country! The more you look, the less you see. That’s why you don’t see me much around them (politicians) because I’ve seen it all. I’m not the type that will stoop so low to get what I want. I just thank God that I am still alive. If I were dead, you wouldn’t call me for this interview. The Nigeria Football Federation and the minister should, at least, look for a way to immortalise the man. There’s nothing bad about having an Under-17 Sam Okwaraji championship that will cut across the nation. He died playing for his country. What else could have been expected from him?
What lasting impression do you have of August 12, 1989, the day he died?
What comes to my mind is that he’s dead but it could have been any one of us. That’s what comes to my mind. After his death, it felt like we lost the zeal to play; we lost the energy and all. Motivating the team was even more difficult. I told you how many players dropped out because of the fear. It was a stigma and it has to be with us till the end of Nigerian football. The history of Nigerian football will not be complete without that episode of August 12, 1989 no matter how they want to look at it. If not that you guys at Saturday APROKOVIBES are recalling this moment, you will see that August 12 will come and go and nobody will remember him. It’s something that’s supposed to be in the Nigerian football calendar. Every August 12 should be remembered for it. How much will it cost to invite all of us who played with him and are still alive to participate in a small novelty match just in remembrance of him, to immortalise Samuel Okwaraji?
It was reported that the then 80,000 official capacity of the National Stadium in Lagos had over 100,000 supporters. Can you describe the atmosphere that day?
There was a stampede and people died. Between 11am and noon, the stadium was already full for a match that was to begin at 4pm. Throughout my career, I played at the National Stadium, Surulere.
At what point during the match did Okwaraji slump?
I think it was in the second half. We just thought it was a mere collapse or something and after the match, we would hear the good news that he had recovered. Even after winning, the celebration wasn’t loud because we got the news (that he died) when we got back to the hotel. There was no joy even after defeating Angola by a goal. There was nothing to really celebrate. After losing a colleague on the pitch, what else do you want to celebrate? The camp was dead because everyone was scared, knowing that it could have been any of us. And that was the first of its kind in Nigerian football.
What kind of attention did he receive medically?
Did we really have paramedics? Did we have a good medical team? It wasn’t as professional as it is nowadays. Technology has gone far now. We just managed with what we had and what we had wasn’t enough. If we had good paramedics, I think they could have revived him.
There was also a report that after he slumped that day, it took four ball boys to push the ambulance to jumpstart it?
The ambulance did not even start and that was the truth. The ambulance was not working. They just kept it there for fancy and they would have collected money for it. The boys had to push it before it started. It’s a very sad story.
Do you think he died because of delayed or poor medical attention?
It could have been because if he had been attended to early enough, he could have been revived. The attention didn’t come on time; time was wasted. They could have revived him in the ambulance before getting to hospital if they had the facilities. But nobody knew that something like that would happen. They just put the bus (ambulance) there for show. There was nothing there. Medically, there was nothing there.
Where was he confirmed dead?
He was confirmed dead when he got to the hospital. There was time wasting before he got to the hospital.
What was the cause of death?
Cardiac arrest. Many of us didn’t know what cardiac arrest was then. It was after his death that we got much awareness about cardiac arrest. Maybe if we had passed through medicals then in the national team, they could have detected it and he would have been stopped from playing that day. But all of these now are just regrets. It’s sad though because it could have been me or any other player. His death left a gap in the team. That was the reason we could not qualify for the 1990 World Cup.
It’s not the statue in the stadium that people will remember. Make a tournament that may be called the Okwaraji Cup every August 12. It’s not sufficient to just put a statue in the National Stadium. Some people even pass there without knowing whose statue it is. They can put it (statue) in the library in Abuja and let people know that he was a great guy who died playing for his country and so on. The current minister tried to do something for his family and Yekini’s family, but it came too late.