Today is the 25th anniversary of the death of Nigerian football player Samuel Okwaraji. He died while playing for Nigeria in the 1990 Fifa World Cup qualifying against Angola at the National Stadium in Lagos.
Even though he was also a qualified lawyer with an LLM in international law, his football career was what brought him to great prominence. He had a career in Europe which included playing for NK Dinamo Zagreb, VfB Stuttgart and SSV Ulm 1846.
He made his debut for Nigeria against Algeria at the Nnamdi Azikiwe Stadium in Enugu in a Seoul 1988 Olympic qualifier.
He also played a key role at the 1988 African Cup of Nations in Morocco, where he scored the fastest goal of the tournament against Cameroon in the group stages. He represented Nigeria in Seoul in the same year, before his last outing against Angola on August 12, 1989 in Lagos. During which he collapsed ten minutes from the end of the World Cup Qualifier against Angola in Lagos and died from congestive heart failure.
Paul Hamilton, who was then part of the coaching setup, explained how Okwaraji broke into the Nigerian squad as a foreign-based player-cum-student.
“We had gone for a playing tour of Germany and the then Nigeria Football Association (NFA) chairman, retired Group Captain John Obakpolor paid us a visit at our training ground. He spoke to (Manfred) Hoener (then Nigeria’s head coach) and myself alone. He told us of a young Nigerian student who was schooling and playing football in Germany.
“The student turned out to be Samuel Okwaraji and immediately he was invited to join the camp. Okwaraji impressed me in his first training session and that was how he got invited for the preparation for the Maroc ’88 Africa Cup of Nations,”.
“He was always among the first to report to camp before our matches. And you cannot miss his hard work and that impressed the coaches and that was how he made the team to Morocco. It was painful that he died just when he started his career. I still remember his goal at Maroc ’88 from outside the box against Cameroon. It was a fantastic goal from a fantastic player. That was the kind of memory he left with many of us who knew him”.