The memory of late Super Eagles star, Samuel Sochukwuma Okwaraji came alive in bold dimensions on Monday in Ebonyi State, as soccer fans in the capital, Abakaliki remembered the icon, who died in active duty for the country on August 12, 1989 at Lagos National Stadium.
Monday marked exactly 30 years that the incident occurred at Surulere SportsCity, during a 1990 FIFA World Cup qualifier against Angola, and a lot of emotions were let loose all across Nigeria in memory of the then Germany-based midfielder, who hailed from Imo State, but soccer fans in Ebonyi were not to be left out of commemorative events.
A cross-section of Abakaliki residents declared that fond memories of Okwaraji will remain evergreen in their minds due to the rare qualities he displayed during his lifetime.
Leading the dirge, Ebonyi United FC of Abakaliki team manager, Ikechukwu Itumo said that Okwaraji still holds the record of Nigeria’s most patriotic player even in death.
Itumo eulogised the late Okwaraji: “He was not only reputed for offsetting his airfares to Super Eagles matches and declined to collect allowances, but he also related with his teammates with utmost humility in spite of being a doctorate degree holder in Law.
“His life continues being a shining example to the present-day footballers as the Super Eagles fortunes could have been better if the players emulated his sense of patriotism.”
A soccer historian, Julius Ijeaku, recalled that he was inside the packed stadium on that day as several football fans died on the terraces out of possible suffocation.
Ijeaku stated: “No one took notice of Okwaraji’s slumping until Samson Siasia saw him gasping and foaming at the mouth and subsequently raised alarm.
“The medics at the stadium tried resuscitating him before taking him to the hospital and before the end of the match, news has started flying that he had died.”
A film producer, John Ibegwam said that in spite of Okwaraji’s sense of patriotism, he was an ingenious midfielder and a great source of motivation to youths.
Ibegwam recalled: “He was a classical midfielder whose sublime goal against Cameroon in the group stages of AFCON 1988 ranks among the best scored in the competition’s history.
“He also motivated several youths, especially footballers that football could be combined with academics and this impacted positively on several lives.”
A female trader, Mrs Bridget Obi, who hails from Okwaraji’s hometown, Umudioka in Orlu, Imo State, urged the Federal Government to fulfil all promises made to the deceased’s family during his burial.
Obi concluded: “It will be gratifying if such promises are fulfilled to serve as eternal gratitude from Nigeria for Okwaraji’s selfless service during his lifetime.”