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31 Years After Okwaraji’s Death, Colleagues Narrate How He Slumps On The Field

31 years ago (August 12, 1989), the ace footballer with the Nigeria’s national team, the Super Eagles, Sam Okwaraji slumped and died on the field of play at the National Stadium, Surulere, Lagos in a tension soaked match between Nigeria and Angola.

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In this historic write-ups posted on Facebook by one Bankole Sanusi, colleagues of Okwaraji like Eguavoen, Adesina and others narrated how the incident happened.

“Eguavoen watched in horror as Okwaraji slumped on the pitch 10 minutes from the end of a 1990 World Cup qualifier between the Super Eaglesand Angola in Lagos, on August 12, 1989, and medics battled to bring him back to life, beforehe 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.

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“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.

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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.”

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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.

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

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.

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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.

Okwaraji would have been 56years old by now maybe,a coach if death had not snatched him 31years ago at the age of 25 on August 12 1989.”

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Written by Adesoji OMOSEBI

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