At 25, he had achieved so much in his young life. It was as if he knew he was going to die at a very unripe age. He died a hero, giving up his life for his beloved country. There is no way one will tell the story of this young soccer hero without feeling the pain of loss gnawing at the heart as one’s head swells with patriotic pride. For millions of Nigerians, the most fabled soccer player is none other than this gentleman.
Samuel Sochukwuma Okwaraji, a fallen Nigerian international soccer icon and a patriot of high measure, a learned gentleman, needs no introduction, even to the youngest football fan in Nigeria. Even after 24 years of his sudden demise in patriotic service, his memory has continued and will continue to linger in the hearts of all lovers of soccer. Sam Okwaraji was no doubt a rare breed, a true patriot, who died serving his fatherland.
Samuel Sochukwuma Okwaraji was born on the 19th of May, 1964 in Umudioka, Orlu, Orlu Local Government Area, Imo State in the Eastern part of Nigeria. His father, Mr. David Okwaraji worked with the defunct Nigeria Airways as a Duty Officer while his mother, Lady Janet Okwaraji was a school headmistress. The parents met in Port Harcourt, Rivers State where his father was working as a produce examiner at the Produce Board and courted for about 3 or 4 years before marriage in 1950 and had seven kids, five boys and two girls with Sam being the second to the last. They lived together for just nine years before the Nigerian civil war broke out during which the father died.
According to his mother, Sam had a very active childhood and played various going to Europe but knew it would demand a fortune to send children to Europe. From the information she gathered from her friend, she was able to raise enough money to send her beloved, brilliant son to Europe for his education. She had confidence that Sam would bring glory to the family and make them proud.
A serious-minded chap, he bagged both Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in International Law. It is on record that Samuel could speak five languages fluently -English, German, Italian, Spanish and of course, his native Igbo. He was an intellectual giant -flawlessly combining academic rigours with football talents.
According to his mother, Sam could be a lawyer and a footballer at the same time but he believed playing was a better career for him.
Upon getting to Europe, it did not take a long time before he started displaying his soccer skills and was soon sported by football scouts and was promptly signed up in 1984 at the age of 20 by Associazione Sportiva Roma (AS Roma) a professional Italian football club in Rome, Italy. Over time, he had to play for other clubs too.
Okwaraji had a career in Europe which included playing for NK Dinamo Zagreb, VfB Stuttgart and SSV Ulm 1846 while finishing his education in Law. In his short stay with Dynamo Zagreb, Samuel 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 Dynamo in the Yugoslav First League was as a substitute on 18 May 1986 against FK Priština. The game was games while growing up. Football was one of them while table tennis was another.
However, he seemed to enjoy football more. His mom stated that he was quite hardworking right from primary school and because he was quite intelligent, he was jumping classes, and according to her, he was the most intelligent of all her children.
But unfortunately, he lost his father at a young age, even before he was admitted into secondary school.
Sam attended WTC Practicing School, Enugu State for his primary education then proceeded to Ezeachi Secondary School, Orlu, Imo State. Later, he went to Federal Government College, Orlu where he was with the very first set admitted and had a brilliant academic performance there.
He passed his West African Secondary School Examination with flying colours and got admission to the Sapienza University of Rome (Sapienza – Università di Roma) which is the largest European university.
By enrollment, its regularly ranked the best of universities in Italy and remains among the top three universities in the world.
Prior to his travelling abroad, it is on record that Okwaraji was a national junior table tennis champion for Anambra and Imo academicals team. He played alongside Chibuzor Ehilegbu, Mike Obi and late Ben Okorogwu before jetting out of Nigeria in 1983 to read International Law at Pontifical Catholic University in Rome, Italy.
Samuel Okwaraji studied Law at this great citadel. Narrating how he was able to travel abroad for his studies, his mother said that she had a friend whose son was David Ngodigha, who manned the post on that fateful day and a very close friend of ‘Sam’ believes that Samuel had a great premonition of his death. According to him, he said that the behaviour of his friend on the morning of August 12 did gave him concern, as he yelled at one of the staff of the hotel in which they had been lodged in Lagos ahead of the World Cup qualifying against Angola.
“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. Suddenly, Sam started telling how important the game against Angola was. And he kept talking about the game and this was quite unusual instead we would joke and then he will call his Italian girlfriend, who I knew, on telephone and they will speak for about six hours,” he said.
The former Nigerian international said: “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.” Before the end of the day, his premonition came to pass. He was not around after that day. Only his memory continues to linger on. His legacy can’t be easily forgotten or erased. His death threw the whole nation into mourning. It was a shocking death as no one expected it.
Upon hearing the sad news on the 12th of August 1989, the entire Umudioka Community in Imo State was thrown into understandable sorrow and mourning.
Umudioka had just lost one of its brightest stars. But you know, as the saying goes, there is no place like home. The saddened and bereaved people of the community came together and organised a most befitting burial for a true Nigerian hero.
The traditional ruler of Umudioka, Igwe Solomon Nwafor Chukwunulu (Ezedioka I), now of blessed memory, co-ordinated a very impressive event which ensured that thousands of Umudioka children at home and abroad came home to honour one of their own. The Igwe was supported by other prominent figures in the community, like Chief A. N. Onyejegbu, the Ide of Umudioka, Chief Fidelis Ejiofor, the Ichie Ezeyim and many others.
Sam was given a state burial in his home town of Umudioka. It was a two day event. There were wails of sadness and sound of gunshots as Sam Okwaraji was buried at 1.55pm on August 30, 1989.
Special mass was held at the open field of the Umudioka primary school with over 20,000 people present. The Imo State Governor, Commander Amadi Ikwechegh, Sports Minister, Tonye Graham Douglas and Commodore Emeka Omeruah among others were present. The Federal Government was reported to have given out a cash grant of just N250,000 to the Okwaraji Family. In his closing speech then Sports Minister, Tonye Graham Douglas revealed that the Federal Government is working on immortalising Sam Okwaraji.
The Nigerian government made promises of training the other children to university level and providing jobs for them.
Nigeria won the match on that fateful, black Saturday, 12th August, 1989 by a lone goal but sadly lost Okwaraji whose patriotic representation of Nigeria was widely acknowledged. Not only did Nigeria lose Okwaraji, she equally lost the qualifying ticket to Cameroun on August 27, 1989 at the Stade Omnisports in Yaounde by a lone goal Sam Okwaraji was barely 25 years old as at the time death snatched him, he was a great achiever. He held one of the records for the fastest goal ever scored in the African Cup of Nations fi nal. He had several “man of the match awards” in most games that he featured for the Green Eagles. Twice at Morocco 88 African Cup of Nations, he was named man of the match. Days before he died, Okwaraji, who was completing his Ph.D thesis, signed a $450,000 contract with a Belgian club shortly before he came to play the match.
The family has teamed up to launch a foundation in his honour. Aside that, nothing again has been done in honour of this martyr, who gave his life that his beloved country may have glory and be ranked among the best in the soccer world. He was a national icon. He dreamt big for Nigerian soccer.
Thanks to Governor Babatunde Fashola of Lagos State. On the 12th of August, 2009, Governor Babatunde Raji Fashola unveiled a concrete bust of Samuel Okwaraji in the Rededicated Memorial Garden in his honour in front of the same stadium where he died. The structure is about 7ft high on marble. The occasion was to mark the 20th anniversary of his passing. Governor Fashola said of him, ‘Literally, Sam was ready to die for his country and I believe he demonstrated that before he died and by the circumstances leading to his death.’
What about Nigeria as a country? What has she done to immortalize this hero? Lady Okwaraji, Samuel’s mother asked: “Would it be too much to name the stadium in which he died after him after such a wonderful sacrifice? It is usual to retire the jersey number with which a star footballer died as a mark of respect but in the case of Sam, it did not happen. “
For many Nigerians, that day and hour when Samuel Sochukwuma Okwaraji slumped and died in the main bowl of the capacity filled National Stadium while he laboured for the glory of the country remains etched in their minds, subtly reminding them of the labours of the fallen soccer hero who fell in vain and utterly negating the sixth and seventh lines of Nigeria’s national anthem.