Remembering Sam Okwaraji, 30 Years On

Remembering Sam Okwaraji, 30 Years On

Thirty years ago, today, I was at the National Stadium in Surulere to watch Nigeria VS Angola in anItalia 90 World Cup qualifier. Samuel Okwaraji collapsed just in the section of the crowd I was sitting. The event happened off the ball. We screamed and shouted seeing Sam go down. Immediately we knew this was serious. The medics came on the pitch, but the sad part was that the ambulance stationed inside the stadium could not start. Yes, the ambulance could not move – precious minutes lost, and Sam died in that stadium.

 His death sent shock waves but what was not widely reported was the overcrowded stadium that resulted in fans collapsing (deaths this was not reported) due to the stampede that occurred during and after the game. Touts took over moving people from the standing area on the ground floor to the seating area for a fee. We won the game by a lone strike by the Stephen Keshi. I almost lost my life in the stampede. I saw folks trampled upon. 

Thirty years later, not much has changed. Yes, plastic has replaced the concrete slabs, but issues around medical facility, ticketing and crowd control are still far from where should be. It took me 10 years before venturing to watch another football match in Nigeria FIFA U17 – Nigeria 1999.

His death sent shock waves but what was not widely reported was the overcrowded stadium that resulted in fans collapsing (deaths this was not reported) due to the stampede that occurred during and after the game. 30 years later, not much has changed. Yes, plastic has replaced the concrete slabs, but issues around medical facility, ticketing and crowd control are still far from where should be.

Sam Okwaraji was a different breed of player. He showed class on and off the pitch. Became popular when he started adorning the Ruud Gullit like deadlocks. He showed class in first and only tournament for Nigeria, MAROC ‘88. His death made the pain of not qualifying for Italia ‘90 more difficult to swallow.

Thirty years on, the memory is still fresh, the questions still come back – if medical help came on time, would Sam had survived? If the ambulance was working could this death have been avoided? Questions that will not be answered. 

Related Okwaraji: The Ambulance Van Could Not Start Its Engine

Sam Okwaraji for me remains a true Nigerian hero. He died playing and giving his all for the motherland, paying the ultimate prize with his death. On a day like this, I ask, why is it that Nigeria does not honour her own? Is Nigeria worth dying for? A line is our national anthem states, “The labour of our hero’s past shall never be in vain…” Is this true?

When we qualified for our first world in faraway Algeria in 1993, I shed a tear thinking how Sam Okwaraji would have felt with that victory. We broke the jinx! I did fantasize him playing in midfield of arguably one of the best Nigeria national team of all time at USA 1994. Hopefully, one day we would have people with a good sense of history and give Sam Okwaraji the honour he truly deserves even in death.

Thirty years on have we learnt any lesson as a nation?

Read: Saddest Day Of My Career – Eguavoen 

Bimboh Adekoya is and ardent football lover and writes from Lagos

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