Today, 12th of August, 2017, makes it exactly 28 year since the exit of Nigeria legend and first football martyr, Samuel Sochukwuma Okwaraji. His middle name Sochukwuma, in the Igbo language means “Only God Knows” which served as a consolation for his family and the nation when on a tension-soaked Saturday, 12th August, 1989, in the middle of a make or mar Italia 1990 World Cup qualifier match, between the Green Eagles and the boastful Angolan side, he collapsed and died a few minutes later.
He only played eight times for Nigeria and scored a grand total of one goal, but Samuel Okwaraji did enough during that brief amount of time to write himself into Nigerian football folklore. His goal after 60 seconds against Cameroon was the fastest goal at the 1988 African Nations’ Cup in Morocco and still remains one of the fastest in the tournament. He also went on to win two Man of the Match awards during the tournament.
Armed with a Masters degree in law, and studying for his doctorate, Okwaraji could have been anything: politician, businessman, civil servant, practicing lawyer, even a professor.
Instead, he chose to pursue his passion of playing football. As a matter of fact, Okwaraji practically gate-crashed his way into the national team, paying his way down to training camp to prove his ability before he was selected.
But it is less for his football skills that he is remembered and more for his sheer, undiluted patriotism — a virtue placed in stark relief against his teammates, and even more so with the current generation. The midfielder would regularly pay his own way home to represent the country without ever asking for refunds.
In one 1989 incident recalled by then NFF Chairman John Obakpolor, Okwaraji angrily told off his club manager at Germany’s SSV-Ulm, who demanded that Nigeria pay $45,000 to secure his services for an international game.
The sum was supposedly the potential losses the club would suffer in Okwaraji’s absence. Obakpolor said he negotiated it down to $15,000, but the midfielder was having none of that. He reportedly stormed into his manager’s office and let rip: “I am a lawyer and you know, and I signed to play football for certain conditions but I don’t think it included reselling my services to my country. You or your club cannot stop me from playing for my country. I am going to represent my country whether you like it or not.”
And he did. Tragically, it was to be for the last time. Obakpolor explains why he was willing to pay that premium to get one player to play for the country.
“We had a good pool to choose our players from. Players who distinguished themselves from others and were ready to take on anybody, but Okwaraji was more than a soccer player. He was an emblem of values that NFA, a microscopic Nigerian society, needs for development and advancement,” Obakpolor proclaimed 13 years after.
Samuel Sochukwuma Okwaraji
At the time of his death, Okwaraji had just signed a deal to join a Belgian club for $450,000. Even factoring in inflation and value of money, many of today’s stars still outstrip him by far in transfer fee and earnings.
It is for this reason that Okwaraji, with his eight games and one goal, has a bust erected in his honour at the National Stadium in Lagos, where he slumped and died on August 12, 1989. It is for this reason that a memorial lecture was organized on the 13th anniversary of his death. It is for this reason that he is remembered by this year and will be every other year by all Nigerians.
In the future, it will be for this reason that even more will be done in his memory by Nigeria. He bled green. He died in green, on green and will be forever remembered as such.