he 12th of August marked the 26th anniversary of the passing of Sam Sochukwuma Okwaraji. Sam Okwaraji died wearing the colours of the Super Eagles of Nigeria, in a 1990 World cup qualifier, against Angola, at the National stadium, Lagos. He slumped and died with about 15 minutes left to play; in a match in which he was not at his usual best. The Super Eagles eventually won the match, 1-0, courtesy of a first half header of a beauty goal, off a corner kick, scored by Skipper Stephen Keshi. The Angolans missed a penalty awarded them in the second half and subsequently the chance of an equaliser. But the Super Eagles victory not withstanding, Nigerians were shocked, pained, and subsequently thrown into mourning, by the rather unexpected news of the death of Sam Okwaraji. Nigerians wonderd what had happened; while Nigerians wonderd, yours sincerely, then a young man of twenty-four years, made the following reflections on the legacy of Sam Okwaraji, as a Super Eagles' player and consequently his place in the annals of Nigerian soccer history :
Sam Okwaraji's involvement with the Super Eagles, was rather accidental and certainly not by design. The young man came back to Nigeria, during the Xmas holidays of 1988, ostensibly to relax somewhat, following the winter break, to the German soccer season. Considering the need to keep in shape while on Xmas holidays, he trained with the defunct: Iwuanyanwu National football club of Owerri. He dazzled and impressed all and sundry with his exquisite skills: close and very effective ball control; crisp and very accurate passing ability; very effective use of both legs, with powerfully -packed bullet shots; superb ball vision; very effective ball distribution ability; an uncanny ability to send the goalkeeper the wrong way during the penalty practice sessions; a very good team player and above all an amiable personality, with good temperament, who fitted well into the team.
Mr. Uche Ejimofor, a patriotic Nigerian, and the then team manager of Iwuanyanwu National Football club of Owerri, having closely observed this young man who intrigued all with his exquisite skills; and having seen the Super Eagles flounder to a 1-0 defeat against Algeria, in Annaba, Algeria, in the first leg of the final Olympic qualifier, for the 1988, Seoul Olympic games, contacted the officials of the NFF, on this rather very special player, with qualities he thought were missing in the Super Eagles mid-field. The NFF, responded, by sending 'spies ,' to monitor this very special player. Sam Okwaraji, was not in the know, when these activities took place behind the scenes. When the obviously impressed NFF 'spies,' sent their report back to the NFF, and with the approval of the Super Eagles' technical crew, under leadership of Coach Paul Hamilton, Sam Okwaraji was contacted by the NFF, with a view to playing for Nigeria, in the return leg cracker against the "Dessert Warriors," of Algeria, at the Nnamdi Azikiwe Stadium, Enugu. The highly patriotic, young, Sam Okwaraji, responded in the affirmative, but with a proviso, that his German club must give it's approval. Meanwhile, Sam Okwaraji, changed his training / maintenance of condition base to the Super Eagles camp, in Enugu; and joined the Super Eagles in training for the return leg match against the Algerians. The then NFF chairman: Group Captain Obakpolor, jetted out of Nigeria to Germany, to negotiate for Sam Okwaraji's release. The NFF chairman, was still in Germany, when the Super Eagles confronted the Algerians, on the 30th of January, 1988, in Enugu, in the do-or die return leg. Meanwhile the German clubside, had given it's approval, and consequently, Sam Okwaraji ,was not only listed for the match, but was dressed up to play, in the first eleven, in his very first match, for Nigeria - a competive match for that matter!
While the Algerians perfected their strategies for the match, they didn't take cognisance of the Super Eagles'' secret weapon,': Sam Okwaraji!
The Super Eagles lined up the following players: Skipper Peter Rufai was in goal; the defensive line consisted of: full backs: Yisa Shofoluwe and Bright Omokaro; the central defenders were: Stephen Keshi, who occassionally interchanged with Austin Eguavoen in defensive mid-field, during the match; and Sunday Eboigbe. The mid-field consisted of: Austin Eguavoen/ Stephen Keshi, in defensive mid-field; Ademola Adeshina, as left- sided offensive mid-fielder and Sam Okwaraji, as right-sided offensive mid-fielder. The offensive weelde consisted of: 'Wonder boy' Ndubuisi Okosieme, on the right wing; Folorunsho Okenla, on the left wing and Samson Sia Sia, in the centre-forward position. The used substitutes were: old Skipper Henry Nwosu, who lost his first team place in the team due to dwindeling performances and Humphrey Edobor. The Super Eagles looked bright and ready to go, in their 4-3-3 formation!
At the blast of the refree's whistle, the Super Eagles took the game to the Algerians wanting to cancel out the one goal advantage of the Algerians, from the first leg match. It was indeed a new Super Eagles in action, radically different from the team that lost the first leg, in Annaba, Algeria. The 'revitalised' Super Eagles, more especially in mid-field, under impuls of the highly effective and 'dangerous' 'secret weapon,': Sam Okwaraji, dominated the game. Sam Okwaraji, as the new Super Eagles' mid-field 'generalissimo,' personally took charge of proceedings in the Super Eagles' mid-field. He more or else provided virtually all that was missing in the Super Eagles' mid-field in the first leg match: pace, crisp and precise passing, vision, overall resilience, quintessence and effervescence! In other words,Sam Okwaraji provided the needed creativity and vigour, in the Super Eagles' mid-field. Little wonder the game turned against the Algerians; to worsen matters the Algerians had no game plan for containing Sam Okwaraji! The offensive salvos of the Super Eagles, occasioned by a revitalised mid-field, occasioned by the contributions of the mercurial Sam Okwaraji, resulted in the Super Eagles' first goal, scored as a consequence of a pile-driver fired by Stephen Keshi, which was badly dealt with by goalkeeper Cerbah of Algeria, who punched the ball onto the path of an alert and onrushing Ademola Adeshina, who wasted no time firing home the rebound for Nigeria's first goal! This goal came midway in the first half, the Algerian knew at this point in time they were in for a lot of trouble; more especially as a consequence of Sam Okwaraji's inclusion in mid-field. They decided to re-strategise, by trying to contain Sam Okwaraji; this didn't yield much fruits, as the first half ended 1-0, in favour of the Super Eagles.
It was reported at this juncture, that the then Chairman of the NFF: Group Captain Obakpolor, who was still in Germany where he negotiated for Sam Okwaraji's release, got a phone call from his wife that informed him that the player whose release he negotiated, was running riot against the Algerians! Thus the investment on the player was worth it!
In the second half, the Algerians were determined to contain and possibly stop Sam Okwaraji, at all costs; knowing fully well that stopping Sam Okwaraji, in mid-field, would effectively derail the Super Eagles' offensive thrusts, that had a well-oiled mid-field under impuls of Sam Okwaraji, as basis. They resorted to all kinds of illegal tactics to stop Sam Okwaraji: they tackled him widely; they kicked him roughly; they pushed him; they even punched him in the stomach, all to no avail. The young man was determined to help his country, he kept his cool, in the face of excessive provocations by the Algerians; and went about doing his business, as he knew best: always trying to break down the Algerian wall of defence with deft touches; he kept the Super Eagles attackers busy, with constant and virtually endless stream of accurate passes that can be likened to a water hose used in spraying water to grass in dry season! At the end of 120 minutes of a tension filled game,the Super Eagles won 2-0; having scored a second goal through substitute: Henry Nwosu, in extra time.
The Super Eagles qualified for the 1988 Seoul Olympic games on 2-1 goals aggregate; Nigerians were united in their thinking that the new found mid-field player: Sam Okwaraji, played a key role in the Super Eagles' qualification. The then new Super Eagles' coach, who took over the team shortly after the qualification for Seoul Olympics, the German: Manfred Hoener, was in agreement. A new star had emerged for the Super Eagles, and that star was: Sam Okwaraji!
Nigerians were anxious to have him play in the Nations cup tournament of 1988, that followed: "Maroc '88 ." And he indeed answered the national call .
At the 1988 Nations' cup competition, Sam Okwaraji shone like a thousand stars; and was one of the light points of a badly divided team. A team divided no thanks to selfishness on the part of some of the players and officials. The efforts of the patriotic Sam Okwraji and some other players, saw the Super Eagles to the finals of the competition, where they narrowly lost to Cameroun. One of the highlights of the competition, was the fastest goal of the Nations cup tournament so far, scored in the 89th second, by Sam Okwaraji, - a left-footed pile driver- scored in a group's match against Cameroun! It was reported that the Camerounian goalkeeper, who conceded the goal: Antoine Bell, subsequently refused to return Sam Okwaraji's greetings, after the match, at the hotel where both teams were lodged!
Sam Okwaraji, represented Nigeria, at the Seoul Olympic games, where he was one of the stand-out performers, in an otherwise badly organised and consequently badly performed team; no thanks to the na´ve, and stupid tactical choices of the then coach of the Super Eagles: Manfred Hoener. Details would be made available in my book due for release later on in the year.
Sam Okwaraji, answerd with benefit of hindsight, the last National call-up during the 1990 World cup qualification series, African zone; and subsequently died while playing against Angola.
The Federal government no doubt did their best by: giving Sam Okwaraji, a national burial; gave financial reward to his family and government scholarship to one of Sam Okawaraji's younger brothers; and of course built a bust statue at the National Stadium, lagos. These laudable feats not withstanding, yours sincerely, thinks the government can do more; by naming at least one of the nation's stadia, after this patriotic and great son of Nigeria, who died wearing the nation's colours. Who as the then Chief of General Staff: the late Admiral Aikhomu, of blessed memory, noted: even spent his own money to come down to represent Nigeria!
May the soul of Sam Okwaraji, continue to rest in eternal peace, in God's bossom, Amen!