On the 12th of August, 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. It was 77 minutes into the match. Right there, in front of 20,000 Nigerians at the Main Bowl of the National Stadium, Surulere, Lagos, the Green Eagles were thrown into disarray while the Palancas Negras of Angola forgot the competition and joined in the futile attempts to revive him.
His body was then taken to the National Stadium Clinic where he was covered up, and from there to the General Hospital. The thousands of Nigerians who came to cheer him to glory left the stadium under a dark cloud of grief. Many would never forget that ominous day. It was just about 10 minutes to the final whistle. Okwaraji was 25. Autopsy revealed he died from high blood pressure-induced congestive heart failure (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 -not a good sign in medicine. Okwaraji literally played his heart out for Nigeria.
He had just signed a $500,000 contract with Berchem FC of Antwerp, Belgium.
The Green Eagles on that day, apart from Okwaraji, were:
-Obobaifo Osaro (now of blessed memory)
-Uchenna Okafor (now of blessed memory)
-Dahiru Sadi (substituted Edobor in the second half) Nigeria won the match: 1-0. But we lost the gallant Okwaraji. Forever.
That fateful day in the newly-refurbished stadium, one of the very last people that Okwaraji (he made the national squad in 1988) met and spoke with was David Ngodigha, a former goalkeeper for Nigeria and later the coach for Bayelsa United FC. They were both in the Nigerian national team and were roommates at the Seoul Olympic Games in Seoul, South Korea in 1988 while both of them were playing under German coach Manfred Hoener and Clemens Westerhof of the Netherlands.
However, their friendship was forged long before they started playing for Nigeria. He was with Okwaraji before the ill-fated match and narrates: “I had known Sam way back while I was in Port Harcourt. But our paths really crossed during the Olympic qualifying games for Seoul ’88. We were roommates then and with Sam you can hardly find a dull moment because he is, sorry he was a down-to-earth person.”
Then he stated that shortly before the match, Sam, who was known for his calm and friendly character became a bit aggressive. On the morning of the match, he shouted at one of the staff in their hotel and that gave him serious concern: “Since I knew Sam, I had never seen him in that mood before and I must say I was so disturbed because this was a man that will allow nothing disturb him before, during or after any match. And suddenly Sam started telling how important the game against Angola was. And he kept talking about the game and this was quite unusual because instead we will joke and then he will call his Italian girlfriend, who I knew, on telephone and they will speak for about six hours.” Then he added that may the late Sam was being emotional because of the nature of the match: “I think Sam was also mindful that he was going to play in Lagos for the first time coupled with the publicity that was built around him before the game.” “
Sam on that day seemed to know that he was leaving. So he told me in his exact words that ‘I am perching on the scrotum of someone. That person wants to strike but he is being careful not to strike and miss.’ Back then I didn’t really understand what he was talking about. And he also warned me to be careful because he has done his best and might not be around for too long.” He was later shocked when his Sam’s cousin came to pack his belongings in the hotel where they were staying (something he said had never occurred before) that Sam had instructed him to do just that before he died. Ndodigha later said of his good friend: ”He wasn’t just a roommate or teammate but a true brother.”
According to his brother, Patrick, when Sam died, he had life insurance from a Belgian firm but ‘because of his love, he did what I will call a capital mistake, he had a clause in his insurance policy in which he stated that if he played outside Europe and America, that he would lose his insurance cover. And that is exactly what happened because he died here. There was an insurance package that was done by Guinness place for that particular match but it was just a cover for that match, not a life insurance. It was worth N10,000. That was what we got. And nothing else.‘
His mother says of that sad day:
I didn’t know that my son had died. It was a mystery to me. Because when we were watching the match, the screen suddenly went blank and I was even abusing NEPA or was it NTA for cutting short such an important match. I started to see people running around and I was wondering what was happening. It was dark, you know it was in the evening when they were playing. So I had to go in and sleep…I was even saying this Nigeria sef, this is a World Cup qualifier match and ….I slept. That night, by 7.30 pm, I woke up to see whether they had started the match again, what I heard was that (she pauses…) …….they are very sorry that……they announced his death….that he slumped and died….that was how I heard it…. It was so painful to me….he was a boy so close to my heart…he always knew what I wanted…he would come home and say Mummy, what do you want. He would ask me if I was well. He would take me to the hospital to the doctor that he just wanted the doctor to examine me, to do this and that. He did so many things to touch my heart. I lost him…and it was a terrible loss to me…because he loved me so much….and I so loved him.. The government indeed made promises to help me out with the care of my children when Sam died because he was the family’s provider but nothing was done. I was at home for a whole year and didn’t teach, receiving condolences from people all over Nigeria for the death of Sam who was multitalented, because I could remember he got a recommendation and congratulatory letter from the Korean government for one of his art works which was chosen as the best in a primary school art contest.” They brought him home to Enugu here where we lived from Lagos but before then they had told me to go to Umudioka and wait for them. My friends gathered here, markets closed, banks closed, offices closed, people lined up the streets in Enugu….he was given a lot of respect…and when they brought him, it was like a king, I had never seen such before.