Football fans on Monday paid glowing tributes to the late Nigerian midfield maestro, Samuel Okwaraji, who died on August 12, 1989 at the National Stadium, Lagos during a World Cup qualifier against Angola.
Most football fans said the memory of Okwaraji, who slumped during the encounter, would remain evergreen in their minds due to the rare qualities he displayed during his lifetime.
A soccer historian, Julius Ijeaku, recalled that he was inside the jam-packed stadium on that day as several football fans died on the terraces out of possible suffocation.
“No one took notice of Okwaraji’s slumping until Samson Siasia saw him gasping and foaming from the mouth and subsequently raised alarm. The medics at the stadium tried resuscitating him before taking him to the hospital and before the end of the match, news had started flying that he had died,” he said.
Ikechukwu Itumo, team manager of Ebonyi United FC of Abakaliki, said that Okwaraji still held the record of Nigeria’s most patriotic player even in death. “He was not only reputed for offsetting his air fares to Super Eagles matches and declining collecting allowances, he related with his teammates with utmost humility in spite of being a doctorate degree holder in Law.
“His life continues being a shining example to the present-day footballers as the Super Eagles fortunes could have been better if the players emulated his sense of patriotism,” he said.
John Ibegwam, a film producer, said that, in spite of Okwaraji’s sense of patriotism, he was an ingenious midfielder and a great source of motivation to youths. “He was a classical midfielder whose sublime goal against Cameroon in the group stages of AFCON 1988 ranks among the best scored in the competition’s history.
“He also motivated several youths, especially footballers that football could be combined with academics and this impacted positively on several lives,” he said.
Mrs Bridget Obi, a trader and soccer follower who hails from Okwaraji’s hometown, Umudioka in Orlu, Imo, urged the federal government to fulfill all promises made to the deceased’s family during his burial.
“Okwaraji’s burial still holds the record of the most attended ceremony in the community till date as it is obvious that the federal government and relevant soccer administrators have forgot him.
“It will be gratifying if such promises are fulfilled to serve as an eternal gratitude from Nigeria for Okwaraji’s selfless service during his lifetime,” she said.
Similarly, Mr Albert Andinam, chairman, Sports Writers Association of Nigeria (SWAN) Cross River Chapter, said on Monday that 30 years after the demise of the football legend, Samuel Okwaraji, the nation still mourned him.
Andinam, who made the disclosure in in Calabar, said Okwaraji died for his fatherland. He called for better medical attention for the nations sportsmen adding that the medical teams and team managers should be up and doing to avoid fielding players that had any form of medical challenge.
According to him, Nigerians will not have suffered such a monumental loss which they still remember if Okwaraji was properly and medically certified fit to play the match in which he slumped.
He opined that the right people should be put in sports administration in the nation adding that the families of late sports heroes were not treated fairly.
This, he said, should be corrected.
“Okwaraji exhibited selfless service and sacrifice which many of our sportsmen today are still exhibiting but these sportsmen need to be encouraged.
“Nigeria has been battered at all fronts but whenever there is a football match, every facet becomes united and when we lose, the disappointment spreads across.
“President Muhammadu Buhari should ensure that square pegs are put in square holes by giving the position of minister of sports to someone who is interested and seen to be contributing to sports development in the nation,” he said.
Similarly, a senior correspondent of the Sun Newspapers in Calabar, Mr Jude Okoro, said Nigeria ran a system where many people who had served the nation meritoriously were not recognised.
Okoro said the nation has not learnt any lesson from the death of Okwaraji and many other fallen heroes in trying to reform the sports sector and make it more productive.
He said Nigerian Sportsmen no longer had the spirit of selflessness and sacrifice because they knew that if something happened to them in active service nothing would be done for their families.
“The story has not changed after 30 years; we saw how Stephen Keshi died and Samson Siasia’s mother was abducted and up till now no one is talking about them.
“Things like these have made our sportsmen to over commercialise sports.
“They simply say if you need us, you pay but if you don’t need us, allow us to go play for other nations,” he said.
He added that attitudinal change was required in the nation and the Nigerian leadership must imbibe the culture of a reward system for those who had served the country diligently.
NAN reports that Samuel Okwaraji was a Nigerian footballer and doctorate degree student of law from the University of Rome before his death.
Born on May 19, 1964, Okwaraji slumped during a World Cup qualifying match in Lagos between Nigeria and Angola on Aug. 12, 1989 and later died in the hospital. (NAN)