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CELEBRATING THE 57TH POSTHUMOUS BIRTHDAY OF ONE OF NIGERIA’S GREATEST FOOTBALLERS
Opinion

CELEBRATING THE 57TH POSTHUMOUS BIRTHDAY OF ONE OF NIGERIA’S GREATEST FOOTBALLERS 

CELEBRATING THE 57TH POSTHUMOUS BIRTHDAY OF ONE OF NIGERIA’S GREATEST FOOTBALLERS

SAMUEL SOCHUKWUMA OKWARAJI, LL.B, LL.M (ROME)
(1964 – 1989)

 

Selfless love for fatherland could be said to be an uncommon attribute, but with Sam Okwaraji, one has no doubt that he was an embodiment of patriotism. He was a super talented footballer who breathed his last while on the field of play; in active service to his fatherland, fully clad in the Nigerian national colours.

Samuel Okwaraji was born on 19 May 1964 in Orlu, Imo State. His father, Mr. David Okwaraji worked with the defunct Nigeria Airways as a Duty Officer while his mother, Lady Janet Okwaraji was a retired school headmistress. Samuel Okwaraji had four brothers and two sisters. According to his mother, Sam had a very active childhood and played various games while growing up. Football was one of them while table tennis was another. But however, he seemed to enjoy football more.

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He had his primary education at WTC Practicing School, Enugu and attended Ezeachi Secondary School, Orlu, Imo State. He later went to Federal Government College, Orlu and finally completed his studies in law in the Pontifical Lateran University of Rome, Italy but did not take up the profession after schooling. While bagging his masters in international law in the University of Rome, Samuel Okwaraji played for top European football clubs such as AS Roma (1984-1985), NK Dinamo Zagreb (1985-1986), Austria Klagenfurt (1986-1987), VfB Stuttgart (1987-1989) and SSV Ulm 1846 (loan) (1987-1988) where he performed exceptionally. In his short stay with Dinamo Zagreb, Sam Okwaraji scored 3 goals in a friendly game vs NK Budućnost Hodošan. The game was played on 30 April 1986, and Dinamo Zagreb won 12–0. Samuel’s only official game for Dinamo in the Yugoslav First League was as a substitute on 18 May 1986 against FK Pristina. The game was played at Maksimir stadium in Zagreb, the 29th round of 1985/86 season. Dinamo Zagreb won 4:3. He also played for Belgian side K. Bercham Sport.
In 1988, Samuel Okwaraji made his way into the Green Eagles squad; at the African Nations Cup played that same year in Morocco. He did the unexpected by netting one of the fastest goals (60s) in the history of African football against the Indomitable Lions of Cameroon. He played along until the final match, where the Eagles lost to their perennial rivals Cameroon by a lone goal. Shining like a million stars in that tournament, Okwaraji was named man of the match twice.

Sam Okwaraji also played at the ‘1988 Summer Olympics‘ that was held in Seoul, South Korea. He was a talented midfielder wearing the Number 6 jersey for Nigeria. He played alongside other professionals like Samson Siasia, Rashidi Yekeni, Bright Omokaro, Wole Odegbami, Christain Obi, Jude Agada, Henry Nwosu and so on.

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Okwaraji had an eventful soccer career which was unfortunately very short. On Saturday, August 12, 1989, while he was playing for Nigeria in a 2nd round World Cup Qualifier match (Group C, Italia World Cup) against Angola, Samuel Okwaraji slumped on the pitch and died immediately, ten minutes from the end of the match, in front of 20,000 spectators at the Main Bowl of the National Stadium, Surulere, Lagos. Everyone thought it was a minor incident when he fell and lay still on the pitch. But the reality soon dawned on everyone that Okwaraji, who at that time was already writing his PhD thesis in Law, had become the first Nigerian footballer to die playing for his country. He was only 25 years old.

Autopsy revealed he died from possible complications of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (which occurs when the heart is unable to provide sufficient pump action to ensure enough blood goes round the body). His heart was discovered to be enlarged.
More remarkable than his benumbing skill was the zeal with which he honoured national call-ups from his base in Germany. He never shunned a single call-up and was reputed for paying his own fares to play in matches involving Nigeria. A concrete bust was unveiled in his memory on the 12th of August, 2009 by Governor Babatunde Fashola of Lagos State, in the rededicated Memorial Garden in his honour in front of the same stadium where he died.

Though his time here on earth was quite short, Sam Okwaraji definitely made his mark and left his footprints on the sands of time. We at the Centre For Memories heartily celebrate his life and times especially on this day of his 57th posthumous birthday.

#IgboNwereMmadu

#CentreForMemories

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