Memories, merriment, patriotism and Sam Okwaraji

Memories, merriment, patriotism and Sam Okwaraji
December 31
15:46 2014

As we countdown to the end of year 2014, how best can one do a final story on Samuel Okwaraji?

Okwaraji died 25 years ago at the National Stadium, Surulere during a 1990 World Cup qualifier between Nigeria and Angola.

But do the people enjoying the festivity of Christmas at Papa Goose, a bar at Ago Palace Way, Okota, Lagos still remember the event on August 12, 1989?

We are told that beer lulls the memory, yet one is tempted to see its effect on recalling an event – especially one that is fading in people’s memory.

Talk of lulling and jogging the memory at the same time.

Solomon Iyama, was 24 years old, just a year younger than Okwaraji, who was at that point battling against the Angolans for the dominance of the midfield.

Iyama on the other hand was sipping beer directly from the bottle while listening to the match commentary in Fugar, in the then Bendel state.

“I was listening to the commentary and there was a break in transmission so I ran outside not to miss out on the action,” the 49-year-old, who’s into oil and gas business, said.

“When a woman in the next compound saw me, she started shouting ‘Solo, Solo your friend has collapsed, your friend has collapsed’. “

So, Iyama knew Okwaraji up-close and personal?

“No, no not at all; I was only fond of him. I loved his story, I loved his dreadlocks,” the bald-headed bespectacled businessman said while on his second bottle of beer.

“It was on the news at night that I now heard that he died. We were in the beer parlour drinking opposite my house when we got the news.

“Okwaraji was a patriotic Nigerian. He wanted to serve his fatherland and he died in the course of doing so. I can’t really recall his other games for the country or his clubs, but I remember he was based in Belgium.”


Tunde Omoju, a lecturer at Maritime Academy in Oron, Akwa Ibom state was a farmer in 1989.

Then 18, the hoe and cutlass rather than lecture notes and the pen were his companion while still under the care of his parents.

“I was working at the farm with my father that Saturday, in Ado-Ekiti (present day Ekiti state, then Ondo state), so I didn’t watch the match,” the soccer non-enthusiast said.

“I’d completed my School Cert a year earlier and was awaiting entry into a tertiary institution, so farming was a popular weekend pastime for me.

“The pastor of our local church, however, watched the match and the following day, Sunday, he made a prayer point of Sam Okwaraji’s death: Oh Lord, frustrate every attempt of the enemy to kill my star at the prime of my youth…. (and other related  “deliverance” prayers). I can’t remember the church praying for his family, though; neither did I know also if he left wife or kids behind.”

20141229_203454 (1)

Segun Irotosi already had a wife and two children in 1989.

Now in his mid-sixties, Irotosi is into freight forwarding as well as petroleum marketing business. Like Omoju, he also fast-forwards football games on TV because he’s not a diehard fan.

He didn’t see Stephen Keshi’s goal – in fact, the entire match – when Nigeria played that day. He didn’t know Okwaraji either.

“I didn’t know Sam Okwaraji,” he said.

“I heard of him once or twice before he died, but I’m sure he was not somebody that was a household name in Nigerian football then because he was just coming into Nigeria soccer scene. He came to play for Nigeria once or twice, probably died the second time he played for Nigeria. That’s all I know about him.

“I didn’t watch the match, but I heard somebody died.”

Irotosi owes the faint memory he has on the late soccer star to musicians.

“A lot of musicians paid tribute to Okwaraji after his death. Kollington Ayinla’s ‘Oh Okwaraji’ track kept my memory fresh and made people like me to remember him,” he said as Fela Anikulapo-Kuti’s No Agreement rent the air.

“Kollington released the song immediately after Okwaraji’s death and without that song, many people wouldn’t have had him in mind.”


Fuji star Kollington immortalised Okwaraji in a song

Godfrey Okereke is not in that category, though.

Okereke was 40 in 1989 and would have been in the stadium to see the match live if business commitments had not taken him out of Lagos. The 65-year-old football enthusiast took solace in his transistor radio set.

“I was listening to the commentary on radio then about the second half or ending of the first, if I can still remember well, the commentator was saying one of Nigeria’s star players had slumped and was not about to get up very soon and that he had been taken away to be attended to,” he said.

He screamed and hugged those around him when Keshi nodded home the only goal of the game. He screamed the next day as well!

“I heard the news the next day while we were talking about the match as well as the outcome of the various matches. The scenario, the possibilities of Nigeria qualifying for the World Cup – we were talking football generally when the news came and it was like a thunderbolt,” he said.

“And there was this story being bandied about by Cameroonians that Nigeria sacrificed Sam Okwaraji in order to go to the World Cup. You know the African diabolical ways, but it was all balderdash, a bloody lie that shouldn’t have been uttered in the first place.”

Okereke recalls how Okwaraji got invited to the national team and his first game against Algeria in Enugu.

Sam Okwaraji 2

“It was not the usual Nigerian way,” he said.

“He was supposed to be on holiday at Umudioka in Orlu and a Nigerian scout and former coach, I have forgotten his name, went to the national team coaches to say that he just saw somebody playing village football and that his skill was out of this world and he would want them to invite him. They said ok and he got the invitation. He came and boy!”

“Even the players fell in love with him and, surprise surprise, for someone who had never been in the national team camp, got a jersey for the match. Nigeria won that match 1-0 and he did enough to justify his inclusion in the team.

“Another thing was that being a student, I think he had his first degree and was about to do his second degree or doing it. We felt if people like him were in the national team, we would have more brain than brawn in Green Eagles.

“He brought flair to the 1988 Nations Cup team. He shouldn’t have been the person to die if any person had to die in that team. Okwaraji shouldn’t have been the one.”


Most words have synonyms, few names do – but not Sam Okwaraji’s.

Patriot, patriotic and patriotism are words that spring to mind when Okwaraji’s name is mentioned.

“A patriot who never worried about what his country would give to him but shed strength and sweat to the country’s glory,” Tonye Graham-Douglas, the then sports minister, said of the late soccer maestro.

But can that be said of the present crop of players?

Before the second-round game against France at the last World Cup in Brazil, Super Eagles players staged a training ground boycott, demanding the payment of their bonus in advance or they won’t honour the game against the 1998 champions.

The Nigeria Football Federation caved in to the threat and did a “pay before service” usually associated with Mama Put joints and fast food restaurants unlike Papa Goose.

Nigeria lost to France and the row was mooted as one of the reasons the team failed to scale the round-of-16 hurdles.

nigeria v france

Nigeria against France at the World Cup

Former Super Eagles captain, Sunday Oliseh, blamed the players’ action on pressure from extended family.

But Papa Goose faithful disagrees.

“What concerns family and serving your fatherland? Your family and your fatherland are two different things entirely,” Iyama said, mimicking a car park parlance of “agbero and overload”.

“There was an agreement between the players and the NFF and it was not fulfilled. I wouldn’t blame the players for protesting before the game. Agreement is an agreement. I work for you and you pay me. I will also ask for money before playing for Nigeria because I know the kind of people in the football federation. I don’t trust them.

“It’s when the ovation is loudest they clap for you but otherwise they forget you. Look at Sam Okwaraji; after he died, they didn’t remember his family. There’s room for patriotism but my own end has to be satisfied. Can I be satisfied just playing without compensation? Not for Nigeria.”

Irotosi was equally as blunt.

“Forget about patriotism in Nigeria,” he said.

“I sympathised with the players. They were in a tight corner and patriotism does not come in here. This is business; some people will collect this money somewhere and the money will be with them. Was there no agreement before the World Cup that if you do this we will do this for you? The people at the helms of affair did not oblige to the agreement and that’s why the players revolted and you can’t blame them.

“Let us forget that it is family problem as well. Football is their livelihood and their future was at stake. There’s no patriotism anywhere in Nigeria. If Okwaraji was alive today, and still in active soccer, he would ask for money too.

“Corruption was not too much then; at least it wasn’t in vogue during the time of Okwaraji but today it is the order of the day. In today’s Nigeria, you take what you can see. And if Okwaraji came today, he’d ask for money. He would do the same thing those players did at the World Cup. If Okwaraji comes one million times, he would collect the money.

“When Oliseh was the captain and spokesperson for the Super Eagles, he fought the management on behalf of the players as regards their bonus. He shouldn’t be talking about extended family problem. If Oliseh were to be playing today, he would do the same thing.”

sunday oliseh...

Okereke, whose tongue is both friendly to lager and stout, sees a generational gap here.

“Okwaraji’s generation is a different generation,” he said.

“Their value system and desire to serve the country was quite different. There was this thought of going to actualise their dreams, and money and income was secondary because the thought of being famous and getting their names on the pages of newspapers and TV and people identifying them while they were on the road; the ability to travel all over the world, meet important people, play in important matches, superseded  any other thing and they gave it all even, some had to use their own money but this generation has taken their decisions based on the realities on the ground.

“When you are relevant, the country recognises you but the moment you are down in your dumps, you are on your own. It’s not that I blame the players, but there should have been a better way of doing what they did. One thing the NFF has not done is to embark on adequate insurance cover for the players. You hear stories of players who had injuries while playing for the national team only to be abandoned. The clubs get annoyed when they treat the players and they turn around to withhold the players for national assignment because it was them who expended money on the player.

“These players have taken their fate into their hands to make sure they secure their future otherwise you hear stories of promises made but never fulfilled and since the players are the ones who do the job, so to say, they should be at the frontline in accounting for compensation before any other person. The fault is actually that of the NFF for not giving them a sense of belonging even when they are not physically fit.”

Okereke also carpets Oliseh’s defence of the action of the players.

“When you go to look for a job, you don’t bring your family problem as a basis to negotiate salary,” he said.

“You don’t say I have an aged father, mother, uncle etc so based on that give me a salary that will cover their needs. You make yourself so invaluable that if they need you they will bend over backwards to pay you.

“FIFA gives money for preparation for the World Cup but in the competition they pay you according to the stage you get to and the money don’t get to the associations until three months after the World Cup, when they have deducted money for red and yellow cards.

“The players know about all this but for lack of trust they don’t believe the NFF will do justice to the money. What they practically told the federation was that you people are living large so bring money now and when FIFA’s money comes after three months you can do the maths. Extended family problem wasn’t the issue but lack of trust.”

Outside the most populous bar in Okota, James Tar Tsaaior, a professor of Media and Communications at Pan-Atlantic University, Lagos bares his mind on the issue.

“The apologia by Sunday is understandable,” he said.

“But where’s patriotism? Are these players the only ones with families? What of the extravagance some of them are known for. In any case, the football authorities and government must also live up to their promises if they make such commitments.

“I also understand the money FIFA promises is given to federations after the event but Nigeria does not always fulfill its part of the bargain with the national side. On the whole, it’s an African problem.”


Samuel Okwaraji made his Super Eagles debut against Algeria in a decisive Olympic qualifier in Enugu in January 30, 1988.

He was the cynosure as his touches and passes shot Nigeria to victory and the fans went home happy with the knowledge that a star had been born.

But a year, six months and 13 days later, the star was dimmed.

Okwaraji 2

Goodbye, friend.


30-1-88 Olympic Qualifier Algeria 2-0
14-3-88 Nations Cup Kenya 3-0
17-3-88 Nations Cup Cameroon 1-1
20-3-88 Nations Cup Egypt 0-0
23-3-88 Nations Cup Algeria 1-1 (10-9 pen)
27-3-88 Nations Cup Cameroon 0-1
13-8-88 Friendly Viefinein 1-1
15-8-88 Friendly Saarbrucken
16-8-88 Friendly Mannheim 1-3
22-8-88 Friendly Hawriswica Selected 1-1
28-8-88 Friendly West Germany Olympic Team 1-2
30-8-88 Friendly Sieger Selected
18-9-88 Olympic Games Brazil 0-4
20-9-88 Olympic Games Yugoslavia 1-3
22-9-88 Olympic Games Australia 0-1
7-1-89 World Cup Qualifier Gabon 1-0
12-8-89 World Cup Qualifier Angola 1-0

Table culled from Complete Football August/September 1990 edition


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1 Comment

  1. Di Maria
    Di Maria January 03, 15:26

    A wonderful and enlightening article.

    Reply to this comment

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