The brother to the late Nigerian footballer, Samuel Okwaraji has spoken out on the circumstances that led to the soccer star’s tragic death.
August 12, 1989 would always remain an unforgettable day in the history of Nigerian football. That day, a mammoth crowd turned out at the National Stadium in Surulere, Lagos, to cheer the men’s national soccer team known as the Green Eagles at the time, to victory against a ‘stubborn’ Angolan team during a crucial Italy 1990 World Cup qualification match. It was one year after the Eagles finished second at the Africa Cup of Nations in Morocco so expectations were quite high. Though boasting of several notable stars in the team, not many at the time could match the rising reputation of Samuel Okwaraji, a young midfielder who plied his trade in Germany. Extremely gifted on the ball and possessing an energy level opponents found difficult to deal with, the 24-year-old player was indeed, the undisputed star of the Green Eagles team going into that crucial encounter. Apart from being excellent on the football field, the Orlu, Imo State-born athlete was also a gifted scholar, bagging a degree in Law from the University of Rome, Italy, and on the verge of earning a doctorate around the period the game was played. He was indeed a special breed of sportsman. By the time the match finally got underway, the National Stadium was almost ripped apart by the thunderous applause of fans following the display of the Nigerian team especially that of their talisman – Okwaraji. Sadly, nobody saw what was to come. Around the 77th minute, moments before the end of the game, tragedy struck! The skillful player crashed to the ground after a supposed heart failure. There was tension everywhere. Silence swept all across the packed arena and beyond thereafter. Millions all across the country stayed glued to their television sets and radios to monitor events. But few minutes after he was rushed to the clinic inside the stadium complex, news filtered in and it was the unbelievable. Okwaraji was dead. The star Nigerian had banked on to propel her to a first World Cup the following year, had passed on. The minutes, days and weeks that followed were characterised by grief, anguish and almost impenetrable darkness. Wounds of that tragic moment have yet to fully heal even 28 years after. Among those who witnessed the entire event unfold right within the bowel of one of Nigeria’s and Africa’s most iconic football cathedrals is Patrick, the elder brother to the late Okwaraji. In this very revealing interview with TUNDE AJAJA and GIBSON ACHONU, he recalls the very last moments of the midfielder and how life has spanned for the rest of the family nearly three decades later.
Today (Saturday) made it 28 years since your brother died, and every year, sports lovers in Nigeria and beyond honour him in their own way. How do you handle the thoughts every year?
You have just said what anybody would assume. It comes up every 12th of August, and we recall the past years and maybe what he could have been if he were alive. That is natural. On one hand, you wish he is alive and when it dawns on you that he’s gone, you are consoled with the way people honour and speak so well of him. We have been trying to cope and live with it just that so many things that surround his life would never let it pass. The thoughts come and go, and it’s only natural.
How does your mum handle it till date?
It’s been quite a while you know. At the early years, it wasn’t very easy for her to handle. My dad passed on when we were young, and like you said, as a woman, she misses him always, especially at times like this and she would remember she had a son like this and would wish he was alive. But the sympathy and condolences of all well-meaning Nigerians seem to console her. She’s trying to manage it and over time, she’s trying to let go, but you know, it’s not very easy. There are lots of things that bring back his memory, like when you hear or see what a lot of his mates are doing now that he’s not around to do. It’s sad, but it’s okay. I think the kind of honour people accord Sam consoles her as well.
What was your last moment with him like?
He came to Nigeria about three days before that match and they (the players) were lodged in a hotel. We were somewhere in my in-law’s house in FESTAC, so a day before the match, he came to meet us. He came around 7pm. When he came, I asked him how convenient it was for him to come, given his engagement the following day, and he said he was feeling bored and lonely because there was nobody around in the hotel, so he decided to come. He said he needed to talk to someone so he came over. He said he would stay for some time and then go back. The next day, a Friday, we went for lunch somewhere in Ikeja, and after that, he was driven back to the hotel. That was the final contact we had as a family.
Apart from you, who were the other family members that saw him?
I was there with my younger sister, my in-law and one of my uncles. So, when we were departing, we all said we would see tomorrow after the match, and he left for his room. Nobody knew that was the last.
Were you at the stadium on the day of the incident?
I was there, at the VIP lounge during the match.
Who else was at the stadium that day?
My brother, who happened to be his immediate younger brother, was also there, and he was to leave with Sam after the match. He wanted him signed to a club there, even though he was signed to a club here at that time but he didn’t carry on very well. After Sam passed on, he travelled and he was signed on.
Sam fell at the 77th minute, did you suspect anything initially or you saw it as normal?
When he fell, I thought it was normal; the way players would always fall during matches. But I became apprehensive when he placed his hands over his head, like a sign of distress. That was when I felt something could be wrong. It was like an alert. When he did that, I saw it as a sign that something unusual had happened. He then beckoned on the medics who came in to attend to him and they took him out of the field. When I saw that reaction, and as they took him to the ambulance, I rushed down to the health centre in the stadium, but they didn’t allow me in. Maybe the medical personnel saw that it was a very serious case, they didn’t want to let me in. They asked who I was and I said I was his brother, so they said I should hold on in order for them to talk to the doctor first. They only allowed one of his colleagues, Angus Ikeji, to enter. He was the goalkeeper for the Under-20 at that time. So, I was outside. Just about 15 minutes after, the doctor came out and was asking everybody, ‘What happened! What happened!! What happened!!!’ I said doctor, ‘What is it?’ He looked at my face and someone told him I was Sam’s brother. So, the doctor changed his disposition and went back into the ward. Angus came out and was sobbing. He was crying like a baby. I asked him what happened and if Sam was okay? He was crying and was saying Sam was okay. But I knew something serious must have happened. Few minutes after, they brought him out from the theatre on a stretcher with support machines. When I saw his eyes I didn’t feel good.
Would you know if he was still alive at that time?
No, he wasn’t, but of course nobody disclosed that at that time. We later learnt he actually died two minutes after they carried him out on a stretcher. He was already dead after two minutes. It happened so fast. I can still recollect the scenario. It was horrible.
What happened thereafter?
They brought him out on a stretcher and took him to the general hospital. That was how the whole thing started.
Do you think he would have survived if he had received better or quality medical attention immediately after he fell?
There was nothing like quality attention at that point. Some of these things are things we like to play down. If it’s in a civilised world we would hold the Sports Commission responsible, because we have seen similar cases all over the world and people survived. If there were some thorough, advanced support, maybe he would be alive today. Everybody claims death is a natural call, but some of them are avoidable. At the time when Sam died, we were not in the Stone Age.
In Nigeria, we tolerate things and take everything as natural. We try to play down on human errors. We could have sued them; sued everybody, because it was a huge, unquantifiable loss on us. I hope they appreciate our tolerance because questions would have been asked and people would have been put on the spot. But it’s been a long time so I don’t want to start going about it again. We take it like that. But I know it wouldn’t happen elsewhere. I know that, but let’s just take it like that.
What was the mood like in the stadium immediately after?
Many people didn’t suspect he had passed on; it was just a few of us who knew something serious had happened. There was a stampede in the stadium that day but it was as a result of some lapses in security around the exit point. About seven people lost their lives that day. After the match, when people were leaving, there was no proper organisation, so there was a stampede. At that time, very few people knew Sam was gone. It wasn’t until the next morning that many people got to know.
When he was transferred to the hospital, did you follow them?
I did. I went to the hospital. When I went to where he was taken, the woman there asked who I wanted to see and I told her. She asked who I was and I told her my name, so she said, ‘hold on, can you come to my office.’ She said she wanted to disclose certain things to me and she wouldn’t want me to react badly. She asked about my mother and I told her she wasn’t in the stadium. So, she said, you are a man. Sam has passed on and he was already in the VIP morgue at that moment. I felt very bad, and I couldn’t control myself. You can imagine the rest. So, I came out and told my in-law what I heard and we tried to confirm, and that was it. I was very emotional because it was something I didn’t expect. How would I expect my younger brother, who was just 24, and someone who had such a bright future to just go like that? Not everybody can handle such news. I just couldn’t put it together. It was sounding unbelievable, but I knew it was late for any human intervention. I felt bad and I still feel bad anytime it comes to my mind.
How did you relay the news to your mum?
I couldn’t tell her; she heard it in the news before I got to her. She heard it in 7am news on the radio the following morning. I was in Lagos when it happened, so I left in the morning for Enugu, but before I got there she already heard it. My place was already full of people. They also heard it in the news and they rushed to the house, but thank God she’s still alive today.
There are reports that Sam died as a result of congestive heart failure. Did he have history of medical or heart crisis?
You know he just signed to a club in Belgium, if he had such history; it would have been in his record. You know that before they sign you on, the club would have done comprehensive medical check up, but there was no record like that about him. He had just finished a pre-season training course in Switzerland at that time. They had just finished the final when the match came up and he had to fly directly to Nigeria from Switzerland. So, there was no record of any medical condition like that. Everything that happened took place here.
So, was that the first time his family would hear that he had such medical condition?
There was nothing like that before. He was a young man, at 24. He was the fourth of seven children. He hadn’t even done much in life. If he had such, the club would have known. They are more advanced than us and it would have been in his record, and if it was, they would even have taken care of it. So, it all happened here. I don’t want to make noise about that issue, but it’s okay.
When you met him two days to that match, was he in any way reluctant about that match or was there any premonition about his death?
No, the only thing I could say that was like a premonition was that he raised an issue that he was going to talk to the publisher of Complete Football that Nigeria should stop wasting her money on some of the players that come to play in Nigeria and that some of them were babysitters who were not really skillful. He said they were not playing active football, and we said how can you do such if you don’t want to get killed. And he said anybody that wanted to kill him then was coming late. He said ‘my head is too big and anybody with such plan is coming late.’ I said what do you mean? He said, yes, you don’t know my head is too big. I kept wondering what it meant, and now if you look at it, 28 years after, we are still talking about a man of 24 years. It’s something unbelievable. I don’t know any Nigerian who died about that same age and is being talked about like Sam today. Twenty-eight years after, we are still talking about one young man that was just 24. Even big people, politicians that had all the money, most have been forgotten. That tells you there was something about him. You know, there is nothing like living a good life; a life that is worthy of emulation. He wasn’t a moneybag and his father wasn’t the richest man in Nigeria but his name speaks for him. It is something our young people should crave.
He became a lawyer at 24, and that was remarkable at that time. How did he achieve that?
Sam was quite brilliant, right from his primary school. He was excellent in his academics, and he combined it with other things. He was very active. He started teaching his peers from Class four, so he was very brilliant.
He had his Master’s in a university in Rome. Did he travel on scholarship?
He left Nigeria immediately after his secondary education, under the sponsorship of my uncle who lives in Port Harcourt. He was Sam’s mentor, and he sent him to a university in Rome for his first degree. He made first class. That was where he also did his Master’s degree, and he had distinction as well. The record is there. He was bent on achieving excellence. He was thorough in everything he did. He wanted to be ahead of others and he was always unassuming.
Even as a professional footballer, he was doing his Ph.D at the time of his death…
(Cuts in…) Yes, he had almost completed his thesis at that time and some people were already calling him a doctor. But for the distractions he had here and there, like going to play football, he would have completed it. It was in the same university he did his first and second degrees.
When he went for his Ph.D, would you know if he planned to lecture or he just wanted to have the degree?
He loved soccer so much, and I think he had the capacity to carry all of his activities along at the same time. He was doing it and it wasn’t trouble for him. He was always talking about what he wanted to do with his football career, like going to play at the World Cup and other tournaments. He had the capacity to carry on with being an academic and a footballer, but I’m sure he was passionate about football.
When he was going into football, was there any reluctance on the part of your parents?
There was no reason for that, because as I said, he was coping brilliantly with both his academics and football career. Why would you want to discourage someone like that? He was just an exceptional person and we all knew he had the capacity.
He also had dreadlocks, which wasn’t a popular style at that time. What inspired that or was that the way he was born?
He loved the Dutch man called Ruud Gullit. That man was his role model. He loved him so much and he said he wanted to play like Gullit. So, when he started making his little waves, he tried to look like him.
Did anyone like your mum try to compel him to cut it?
No, everybody left him and if you were in her shoes, you would do the same thing. Sam was doing so well in his academics and even football, so you would rather leave such a young man to enjoy himself. When he was playing and he was coming home with dreadlocks, people knew he wasn’t a dropout; I mean someone who had Master’s and almost got his Ph.D. Even though we were not used to such styles, we had to let him enjoy himself.
Some reports online said he was married. Was he?
No, he wasn’t. He had no such engagement. He had a friend but there was nothing serious. He was young, just that he was growing very fast.
One thing people have not been happy about is the attitude of government towards his case; from when he died till date. After his death, did any government delegation visit the family?
This is a controversial issue and we have said a lot about that. If those at the helm of affairs had come to say they were sorry about the loss, you would have heard it. They would even be the first to put it out to the press. So, when I talk, they would say I’m controversial. But it’s about the picture it creates in the mind of people who are aspiring to be like him. It creates a jungle mentality. People tend to think that if it happens to be them, is this how they would be treated? And we all know that is not good for the system. So, it’s not about me but the impression it has on the system, especially the young ones. I don’t think people understand that this thing is a very dangerous trend. Let people know that if they put in their best and if the unfortunate happens, I wouldn’t be ignored. Why are Americans ready to die any day for their country? It’s about the love and concern that the system shows to the people. Everything is not about money; it can do some things but not all things. So, it’s not about me or us, but the image his case brings to mind is terrifying and that posture is not good for the system. Somebody should be embarrassed with that. Look at us, are we learning anything? If you look at similar cases around, they don’t treat their people the way we do. Look at Marc-Vivien Foe, the Cameroonian. See what has happened around him. Till tomorrow, look at what FIFA is doing as regards his case. Here, we just pretend as if we don’t know what is happening. Everybody who is concerned about this issue do not appreciate how it has been handled, but like I said, it’s not about us, but the impression they are creating.
How does the family feel about this?
That is what I’m saying. It’s not about us. If we talk as a family, it would be like we are talking about ourselves. It’s not us; it’s about how it affects young people’s perception of Nigeria. It’s not good and it’s a very dangerous trend. Look at the stadium where he passed on, it’s rat-infested, unused and nobody has the will to put it in place. It’s a big issue and I don’t know where to start. I hope you people who are there to speak for the masses would continue to do that. Someday, we hope people who are supposed to do something would do it. Somebody in a high position would come out and say something and you would not hear from the person again. There are certain things that I can tell you that would shock you and you would hardly believe, but let’s just keep them. When we have young people to drive these things, there would be difference. We have brilliant young generation; look beyond some isolated cases here and there. A lot of people are hungry now and there are certain things you would do that they would starve you to death. That is the fear. What they are trying to do is to use the strategy to stifle everybody so that you won’t have the means to confront them. With time, things would shift.
Is there any plan in motion from any quarters, as it concerns Sam?
As we speak, the family, the Imo State Football Association and some organisations are entering into an agreement, in a bid to build a facility that would be named after him. That is commendable from the FA. I thank them, especially when some people do nothing. It’s coming up soon. We are doing the paper work. In the next few weeks, it would be unveiled to the press. It’s a huge facility, to remind us of him. Twenty-eight years after, it’s something. I wish I could talk to our young people on the import of leaving legacies behind. It’s more than a billion dollar promo. The good way to talk to them is to show them an example. It would always register and that is the idea. That is why we have hall of fame; to motivate and inspire others as leaders of tomorrow. I thank every well-meaning Nigerian who has shown concern, even 28 years after. It’s amazing. I appreciate them.
Was there any time he was reluctant to come and play for Nigeria?
He was very passionate about playing for Nigeria. He had no reservation about that. The only reservation he had was the quality of players that were coming to play for the country and how they came into the team. He wanted to say it, but they did not allow him to say it. The situation did not allow him to say it. He was passionate about playing for Nigeria and for Nigeria to achieve her dream in soccer. It’s not easy talking about the issue all the time, but I do it because of you, myself and our children, so that the system could change. Government should do something that impart leaders of tomorrow and impart the generation unborn. If we play down on these things and it gets to our children, they would be discouraged.
It seems both of you were very close, what do you miss most about him?
We were very close, because I lived in Italy for about six years too. We shared a lot of things in common, from primary school. There were times he referred to me as his manager. So, we were close. I miss his person. He was someone you would stay close to and you wouldn’t feel like you were beside a star. He was very unassuming. He was a good friend and always ready to help. He was very intelligent, and he never wanted people to feel inferior so it was easy to shine around him. I think that is one thing that would resonate among people who knew him. He would want to be like the boy.
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