Okwaraji: Unsung Hero Of Nigerian Football


August 12, 1989 was a day football fans in Nigeria would not forget in a hurry when Samuel Okwaraji slumped and died during the 1990 FIFA World Cup qualifiers against Palancras of Angola at the National Stadium, Surulere, Lagos.

The Imo State-born player made his debut when he featured for Nigeria in a Seoul 1998 Olympic qualifier against Algeria at the Nnamdi Azikwe Stadium in Enugu State.

His performance in the Seoul qualifiers and AS Roma FC of Italy earned him a call up to feature for Nigeria in the 1988 Africa Cup of Nations held in Morocco,where he scored the fastest goal of the tournament against Cameroon in the group stage.

It is sad today that Okwaraji, who gave his best for the country, has not been remembered and honoured by Nigeria Football Federation, NFF and indeed the Nigerian government at the federal level.

Nigerians expected that the officials of the NFF, during his anniversary, which was last Friday, would organise a week long-programme in honour of the fallen hero who died while serving the nation . Instead, the NFF officials were said to be in far away Colombia dining and wining with the Flying Eagles in the ongoing FIFA U-20 World Cup.

Okwaraji died while serving the nation and deserved honour and recognition.

Okwaraji was no doubt a rare breed and a true patriot. It was on record that the player spent his personal money to support the Super Eagles’s campaign during the 1990 World Cup qualifiers-a qualifying series that claimed his life.

His commitment to the Nigerian football was beyond doubt, but 21 years after, Okwaraji’s contribution is yet to be appreciated. His aged mother was abandoned by the federal and Imo State governments.

During his memorial anniversary last year, Governor Babatunde Raji Fashola of Lagos State for the first time built a statue of the late Okwaraji at the front of the National Stadium, Surulere, Lagos.

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In 1998, an official of the Imo State Government attended the 9th Okwaraji Memorial Lecture and made promises which are yet to be fulfilled.

One of the promises made then was to name the National Sports Festival held in Owerri that year after Okwaraji, but this never happened.

Both the federal and his state government have failed to put smile on the faces of the deceased’s family since 1989.

The late Okwaraji’s family are not happy with the way the NFF and governments abandoned their late brother who served his fatherland wholeheartedly.

One of the teammates of the late Okwaraji, Syvanus Okpala, a former Rangers’ goalkeeper, described the late footballer as a disciplined and committed player who gave his best for his fatherland.

“We cannot see a player like Okwaraji today because he loved his fatherland and gave his best. Unfortunately, the player has been forgotten completely by the governments. This is very sad,” he said.

President General of the Nigeria Football Supporters Club, Dr. Rafiu Ladipo, while commending the NFF for their effort to honour Muda Lawal who died 20 years ago, said, it will be great, if the board could extend the gesture to Okwaraji’s family.

“While I’m not in any way trying to create controversy by making this call, I believe it would be great if the NFF extends the gesture to the immediate family of Sam Okwaraji, who like Muda, was committed to national service during his time in the senior national team,” Ladipo said.

—Sunday Akintoye

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