25 years after, Okwaraji’s death still terrifies teammates

Late Samuel Okwaraji’s teammates on the day he died 25 years ago, have not been able to overcome the trauma of watching the player slump and die, reports ’TANA AIYEJINA

Tuesday last week made it 25 years since Nigerian footballer, Samuel Okwaraji, passed away. But to his teammate, Austin Eguavoen, it seems just like yesterday.

Eguavoen watched in horror as Okwaraji slumped on the pitch 10 minutes from the end of a 1990 World Cup qualifier between the Super Eagles and Angola in Lagos, on August 12, 1989, and medics battled to bring him back to life, before he was taken to hospital, where he died. Doctors said the 25-year-old Okwaraji died of congestive heart failure.

It’s a moment that will be difficult to erase from the memory of Eguavoen, who missed a penalty in that crucial qualifier for Italia ’90.

“I can remember what happened on that day very well; though it’s not a good thing to remember. There was a throw-in for Nigeria; I had the ball and I wanted to do the throw-in. Sam Okwaraji stood and all of a sudden he bent forward a little bit. Then he squatted and Samson Siasia went close to him. Then he (Siasia) told me to hold on, that Sammy wasn’t feeling fine,” Eguavoen said.

“It was still 0-0 Nigeria versus Angola and we needed that win badly but from squatting, he (Okwaraji) sat down and then he lay down. So we dropped the ball and all of us went close to him. The doctors came and they tried to force his teeth open; they tried to put a scissors in between his teeth. I was there, Samson was there; we were all there.”

Maybe Okwaraji would have been alive today had the stadium ambulance functioned properly. According to Eguavoen, some precious minutes were wasted trying to put the ambulance in order as Okwaraji lay helpless and dying.

Eguavoen added, “They actually succeeded in putting the scissors in between his teeth. And then they signaled the ambulance to come but it didn’t start. They had to push it to start and they drove Sammy off and the game continued. We eventually won the match 1-0.”

Midfielder Ademola Adeshina, was Okwaraji’s roommate before the ill-fated match against the Angolans.

Now a UEFA Level 1 license coach, Adeshina recounted his encounter with the late player, who had a masters degree in International Law from the University of Rome.

He said, “We came together from Belgium for the match and he was my roommate at Sheraton Hotel on that fateful day. It was a bad day, a sad day for me but I thank God for his soul. On the morning of the game, he asked me, ‘Ade, are you sure I am going to play?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ And then he said, ‘If I play this match, the whole world will know me.’

“It took me several years to understand the meaning of that statement. It was like he knew something was going to happen to him.”

According to Adeshina, the game started around 3pm and Okwaraji found it difficult coping with the harsh weather conditions before he finally slumped on the pitch.

“It was sunny and he was playing on the National Stadium pitch for the first time. He wasn’t moving much; he wasn’t able to cope. We were used to the weather but Sammy wasn’t.

“During half-time pep-talk, coach Paul Hamilton said to Okwaraji, ‘Nigerians want to see you.’ When the second half started, he tried to impress, moving from left to right while Henry Nwosu and myself were in the midfield. We decided to give him balls so he could make use of them but suddenly, we saw him on the ground. I was looking at him and then Siasia came and called the medical people.

“From then, we didn’t know what happened and we continued the match; Stephen Keshi scored the lone goal.”

Another of Okwaraji’s teammates, Etim Esin, also gave his own account of the story.

Etim said, “When I realised that last Tuesday was August 12, the day Sammy died 25 years ago, I dropped my phones at home because I knew a lot of people were going to call me. I don’t want memories of that day to come back. I feel like crying every August 12.

“I was the one who gave the pull-out that Keshi converted for our only goal that day. That was after Sammy was taken out of the field.

“It was about 10 minutes to go and Siasia was the closest person to Sammy. We had a throw-in on the other side of the pitch. We were expecting the throw-in, when Sammy slumped. Siasia rushed to him and raised the alarm and they called in doctors to help revive him.”

Despite the lone goal victory over Palancas Negras, there was apprehension inside the Eagles camp in Sheraton Hotel, Ikeja, Lagos. Was Okwaraji alive? Was he responding to treatment? Was he flown abroad?

A million thoughts crept in the minds of the players, and the result of the match against Angola no longer mattered. What mattered was Okwaraji’s life.

Later on, the entire hotel was thrown into grief, when it was revealed that Okwaraji had died.

“In the hotel (Sheraton) later on that night, Angus Ikeji, one of our young goalkeepers then, came in and broke the news; I think it was about 10.30pm, that Sammy had passed away. That was all I can remember,” Eguavoen added.

It was the Big Boss, Keshi, who broke the sad news to Adeshina.

“When we got back to the hotel, I was with my family and friends when Keshi called me and said, ‘Can you believe that they just called me now and said Okwaraji is dead?’ I told him, ‘What? Don’t tell me that.’ I was unable to sleep alone on the bed. My roommate was gone forever. My younger brother was encouraging me but my eyes were wide open.

“The following morning I saw several headlines, ‘Samuel Okwaraji is gone.’ There were different captions on that day. It was such a sad loss. I remember him every August 12. May his soul rest in peace,” Adeshina stated.

There have been calls and clamour for the government to properly immortalise Okwaraji but Etim slammed teammates of the fallen player for abandoning families of their late colleagues.

Etim added, “Keshi played that game, he was captain that day; Eguavoen and Siasia played that game but they have all turned blind eyes. The three of them have handled the national team, can’t they influence something in Sammy’s favour? It’s so sad.

“They could set up a foundation for the benefit of Sammy’s family and for other players who have passed away. It’s only Lagos State that has remembered the player. The likes of (Thompson) Oliha, (Chris) Anigala and Rashidi Yekini are dead. Can’t we set up a foundation to help their families? How are the wives and kids of these late players surviving?

“Must we wait for the government? If we do something on our own to honour Sammy, especially the people that played that day with him, it will be good. But we have two players unions holding us to ransom. These unions can do a lot for these fallen heroes without bothering the government.”

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