“The labour of our heroes past shall never be in vain.”
The above declaration is emphatically embedded in the first stanza of Nigeria’s national anthem. However, its relevance has continued to attract questions.
By August 12 this year, it will be 30 years since former Super Eagles midfield maestro, Samuel Sochukwuma Okwaraji slumped and died on the pitch of the National Stadium, Surulere, Lagos, while playing for the country in a World Cup qualifying match against Angola. He died at the age of 25 on August 12, 1989.
Okwaraji not only served Nigeria with his “heart and might” but paid the supreme price for his fatherland.
Barely a week from today, precisely on May 19, the late soccer star, who was born on August 19, 1964, would have clocked 55 years.
Regrettably, 30 years after the demise of the iconic soccer star, whose patriotic disposition remains a talking point in the history of Nigerian sports, none of the promises made by the Federal Government to immortalise him has been fulfilled.
As a matter of fact, some two years ago, a member of the House of Representatives, Mr Tajudeen Yusuf, from Kogi State, moved a fantastic motion in the House, insisting that the federal government should fulfill those promises.
A member of the Samnuel Okwaraji Foundation, Mr Chidozie Achonwa, echoed
this in an exclusive chat with Sunsports.
He said: “The federal government made five promises when Sam died. I was a small boy then, but I remember that the then Head of State, General Ibrahim Babangida, represented by General David Mark at the burial, made about five promises, but none of them has been fulfilled till date. One of the promises was to retire his (Okwaraji’s) No. 6 national team jersey. Another promise was to build a stadium in his community in Umudioka, Orlu, Imo State, which has not been done.”
A stadium was named after Okwaraji in Orlu, Imo State, by former governor of the State, Achike Udenwa, but the stadium had since been displaced by a new road. Although a new stadium has been built in the same area by the out-going governor of the state, Rochas Okorocha, it is yet to be named after the late footballer few days to the governor’s exit from office.
“ If Sam comes back to life and sees the way his family is being treated, he would be shocked and disappointed,” he lamented.
Okwaraji’s death evokes pertinent issues, such as insurance cover for sportsmen and women who represent the country at international championships. In case of permanent disabilities or death, the families of such athletes ought to be adequately compensated to cushion the effect of their loss even though no amount of money can substitute life.
“Sam’s life assurance cover in Europe was worth $4 billion, but the insurance company refused to pay because they said he died in Africa. If he had died in Europe, his family would have been paid $4 billion, and you know that’s a lot of money, even though it would not have replaced his precious life.
“I’ve interacted with some of his teammates like Emeka Ezeugo, Etim Esin and Bright Omokaro and they attested to what a wonderful guy he was. Here was a guy who would fly to Nigeria with his money to play for his country and fly back to his base with his money without asking for refunds. In fact, his team mates said he would refuse to accept his match bonuses because he felt it was an honour to put on the green and white national colours.” Today, most athletes insist on collecting their allowances and bonuses as well as flight tickets before honouring invitation to represent the country in sporting events.
Achonwa recalled that Okwaraji paid the supreme price for his fatherland and deserves to be honoured.
“If Sam is so honoured, the present generation of sportsmen and women would know that it pays to be patriotic, and they would be motivated to fight for their fatherland, knowing that even if they die in the process, they would not die in vain.
I’ve interacted with some ex-Eagles, and they told me that the reason they insisted on collecting their money before representing the country was because of what happened to Sam Okwaraji, how his family was abandoned after his death.
“Recently, I saw the picture of an ex-Super Eagles’ goalkeeper in distress; but Sam’s story is the most pathetic. His mum is 80 years. He was the bread winner of the family before his sudden death. Honouring him would give the woman hope.”
As part of activities to commemorate the 30th anniversary of his death, the Sam Okwaraji Foundation is putting together a documentary titled Samuel Sochukwuma Okwaraji: The life and times of a forgotten patriot.”
“Sam’s story can inspire a general. So, we are putting together a documentary that would tell the story of a patriot. As a student, he excelled; as footballer, he not only excelled, but demonstrated unprecedented patriotism. When you mention Sam Okwaraji, what readily comes to ones mind is football.
But Sam was more that football. He bagged a Masters Degree in International Law at 23, and at 25 he was already studying for his Doctorate Degree. He was a man of distinction, the certificates are there.
“He loved Nigeria. When he was in secondary school, he was a table-tennis champion. His classmates in secondary school showed me the table-tennis board he won for the school, Eziachi Secondary school in Orlu, Imo State. Sam was even more popular as a boxer in his secondary school days. Sam could speak five international languages. He could peak English, Portuguese, German and so on, the records are there. He was the only player who died in active service. Yes, Stephen Keshi and Rashid Yekini and others were all fantastic players in their times, but none of them died on the pitch for the country like Sam.
“We are reaching out to football stakeholders like the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF), corporate organizations and private individuals to partner us in this project. We are discussing with the President of Ohanaeze Indigbo, Chief Nnia Nwodo, and he has asked the chairman of Ohanaeze Ndigbo in Enugu State to liase with us. We are hopeful that the incoming governor of Imo State and other stakeholders in the state will partner us to honour Sam, so as to inspire the present generation of Nigerian youths, especially the current crop of sportsmen and women.”
On August 12, this year, the Sam Okwaraji Foundation will be presenting a documentary on the football hero. Achonwa said event will take place in Abuja in order to bring all football stakeholders together to honor the football impresario.
“We don’t want to make it an Imo affair; Sam was from Imo, but he didn’t die serving his state. He died serving his fatherland, and that is why we want to make the programme a national affair. Abuja is the nation’s capital and we hope President Muhammadu Buhari would give us attention. We are also soliciting the support of the NFF,” Achonwa said.
Okwaraji played for Italian side, AS Roma between 1984 and 1985 as a youth player. He went on to play for NK Dinamo Zagreb between 1985 and 1986, for Austria Klagenfurt between 1986 and 1987, for VfB Stuttgart between 1987 and 1989. He also played for SSV Ulm 1846 on loan between 1987-1988.