Thirty years down the lane, Mr. Samuel Sochukwuma Okwaraji of Owerre Umudioka in Orlu LGA; Imo State has not been adequately immortalized, despite the huge sacrifices he rendered to the growth of football and other sports like, boxing and table tennis in the country. His death, at a tender age was a big blow to the nation, but most especially to his immediate family who has not recovered from the shock, even as he was the breadwinner of the entire Okwaraji’ s dynasty, before his unfortunate death.
His death, I believe is emotionally devastating to the extent that his contract with Toyota, a vehicles manufacturing company as their Ambassador did not sail through again as that was just after few months the contract was sealed.
It is more disheartening that the Federal Government of Nigeria till date could not follow up all promises made on the day of his burial in 1989. One may be forced to believe that there may be some percentage of ethnic colouration to the abandonment of the hero. Okwaraji, as we all know was the only Super Eagles player that played without expecting any refund from the Football Association, even though he played in the “Green Eagles” era.
His death on Saturday August 12,1989 is shrouded in confusion and the story that emanated at that period as a result of his untimely death is still very devastating and heartbroken.
That he was supposed to put on the number 8 Jersey for the 1990 qualifying match between Nigeria and Angola at the National Stadium Surulere Lagos, but was forced to wear the number 6 Jersey prior to his death on the field of play remains a mystery yet to be unraveled till date. Who mastermind the change of change of Jersey number? Who was afraid of losing his position to the late talented footballer? Information has it that most of the players during his hey days conspired against Okwaraji at the field of play so as to frustrate him from succeeding on the field of play, but not deterred by the brazen conspiracy, he resorted to returning back to the defence in a bid to build attack from behind.
Can we still go back to this matter as individuals, Non Governmental Organizations, Government or other institutions that matter in the country? Unraveling the remote cause or causes of his death, will resuscitate the zeal of patriotism among the present generation and the ones to come. The need to adequately immortalize Sam Sochukwuma Okwaraji can no longer be over emphasized, as it will further solidify the unity and progress of this nation, socially, mentally and other wise. We should not forget that it was only one man, Jesus Christ, the son of Joseph and Blessed Virgin Mary, who redeemed the whole world through his death on the cross. So, the death of Okwaraji, if properly investigated would surely enhance the sociological imperative of the nation.
Furthermore, it is very appalling that even the Imo state Government has not really done the needful. Renaming a stadium in his Orlu LGA was not enough and it is still not enough, just as it was supposed to be followed up with football and other sports activities that would have been an annual events at all levels of the government till date. Blames should go to the Government of Imo State first for the neglect so far, while the complete efforts made by the immediate past Governor of Imo State, Owelle Rochas Okorocha to wipe out the memories of the late football maestro from the annals of history should be condemned by every right thinking personality in the state and beyond. First was the complete demolition of the stadium named after Sam Okwaraji. A stadium located at the heart of the town and has other sporting facilities being carried out inside the stadia, even while the same stadium, had at a particular period hosted international matches.
Rather than upgrade the stadium to an international standard, Okorocha resorted to demolition and ignorantly commenced construction of commence a mini football pitch along Owerri /Orlu express way. Till date, the unplanned project was never completed throughout the 8 years of Okorocha’ s government That was at a time he should have used his position to attract the federal government’ s presence to the stadium.
Not yet done, Okorocha converted and allocated to himself and cronies the large portions of lands earlier mapped out for an international sports centre in honour of Sam Okwaraji for residential buildings.
To the glory of God and show of patriotism, the people of Owerre Umudioka community stood against that unpopular decision. It took their doggedness and open protest for the decision to be reversed.
Key colleagues of the late Okwaraji, who was also a lawyer have much to do. They should not abandon him now, even as he is no more. What if it were them, I believe Sam wouldn’t have abandoned their families to abject poverty and rejection?
Current National team players should rise up to expectations, bearing in mind that it may be them tomorrow. Though, we can’t wish for the negative to happen, but whatever that will happen will still come to fulfillment as it wishes the Lord Almighty, if not now, then later. As long as we live, let us always be prepared for anything, favourable or unfavourable.
Kudos should be give to many players like Peter Rufai, Okechukwu Uche, Henry Nwosu and others who have taken it as a point of duty to make sure that all the promises made to the family of the late Okwaraji would be fulfilled. But, worthy of mention is the pledge to withdraw the number 6 Jersey of which Okwaraji was putting on during the match, where he slumped and died. Withdrawing the number 6/jetsy should be carried out immediately to the glory of God. For this reason, I call on all well meaning and right thinking personalities to persuade the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) led by Mr. Amaju Pinnick to do the needful.
However, the sins of the immediate past administration as regards to the total neglect of the deceased soccer wizard may be atoned by the present Imo State government under the leadership of Rt. Hon. Emeka Ihedioha as Governor. Speaking through the chairman, Imo State Sports Commission over the weekend at Dan Anyiam Stadium, Mr. Fan Ndubuoke, pledged the absolute support and commitment of the state government towards the realization of the documentary being put in place by a Non Governmental Organization(NGO) known as Sam Okwaraji Foundation (SOF). The documentary is aimed at honouring the late Okwaraji as the NGO sets to mark his 30 years memorial service, even as there are many other activities lined up to make it very remarkable.
The occasion to my observation was not being put in place for personal gains, but its being put together to celebrate hard work and excellence.
The Chairman of SOF, Mr. Patrick Okwaraji, the eldest brother of the late footballer, informed that the documentary will be titled: “Patriotism, Education and Soccer”, adding, that, the documentary will expose the short life, but well lived life of the ex- footballer, who died on his prime at the age of Twenty -Five while in active service, just as he revealed, that the late Okwaraji was a Masters Degree Holder in International Law from Rome, slumped and died on August 12 1989 during a World cup qualifier against Angola at the national Stadium Lagos”.
Responding, the Government representative, Mr. Ndubuoke, pledged the support of the Imo State Government, saying, the memorial event is coming at the right time, since the ” Rebuild” government of Governor Ihedioha is a compassionate one”.
Okwaraji’ s patriotism can no longer be over emphasized and I am happy to let you know that the present government of Rt.Hon. Emeka Ihedioha is ever ready and willing to do the needful and must certainly partner with you to make this all important event a reality.
“Late Samuel Okwaraji was a patriot and one of the Imo sons that made the state proud both at the national and international levels respectively.
“We all are aware of the promises which the Federal Government made to honor the late footballer. I am in a position to play a role in honoring the late Eagles super star, I will do my best to ensuring that the programme is successful”, just as Ndubuoke further revealed Governor Emeka Ihedioha’ s passion for sports development, adding, that any honour done to immortalize Sam Okwaraji would help in inspiring the younger generation.
Furthermore, Fan Ndubuoke informed the readiness of his commission to always meet with the leadership of Sam Okwaraji Foundation so as to plan towards the successful hosting of the memorial event.
“Late Sam Okwaraji was a young man who combined his football career and education and he was exceptional in both careers”.
Mr. Chigozie Achonwa, a member of the Sam Okwaraji Foundation (SOF), told the audience at the interaction that the NGO is in constant touch with the leadership of the Ohanaeze Ndi Igbo led by Chief Nnia Nwodo and other prominent Nigerians like Senator David Mark, who represented the Federal Government of Nigeria during the internment of Okwaraji, stressing, the memorial lecture on Sam Okwaraji would include appreciating all that had in one way or another given support to the bereaved family.
“The foundation will be presenting awards of appreciation to all that have shown support to the deceased family. Mostly to be appreciated are over Seventeen Media houses who have carried on with the matter till date.Former and current National team players would not be left out too”, Achonwa stated.
Another member of the steering committee, Dr. Okechukwu Duru, noted, the memorial event was being organized “to mark a life of a man who died out of patriotism and love one’ s father land”.
In an interaction with a renowned journalist in Owerri, Mr. Ori Martins, recalled that the late Okwaraji ended up playing 8 games for the nation, adding, his death was suspicious as he was not in the habit of asking for matches allowances or bonuses or return tickets whenever he played for the nation.”Late Sam Okwaraji’ s date was a colossal loss to the nation and beyond, even as it was suspicious. He normally wore the number 8 Jersey, but was allegedly forced to wear the number 6 Jersey for that match between Nigeria and Angola”.
In his comments, Mr. Augustine Nwokeji, who almost broke down in tears, stated, he traveled to Lagos for that match between Nigeria and Angola on the invitation of the late football icon as he promised to introduce him to some soccer administrators that would assist him upgrade his football career at the national level. He said “Sam Okwaraji was talented. His death was regrettable and a disaster to the development of soccer then and he was a natural sportsman.
“After his death, I was among those that conveyed his body to Enugu State from Lagos state then before he was later brought to Orlu for burial”, Nwokeji, who is popularly known as Skidoo, recalled.
One time Super Eagles captain, Henry Nwosu, who received the pass from Sam Okwaraji to score the goal against Algeria in a world cup qualifying match in Enugu, expressed happiness to the Imo government for endorsing the project and added, the proposed project will motivate others to do more for the country.
“I was the Super Eagles captain when Sam Okwaraji came into the national team and since his untimely death in Lagos the Federal Government has not done much to honor him or to take care of his family which he described as unfortunate”, just as he informed, most former players were involved on the project having endorsed it.
Nwosu, charged other critical stakeholders in the country and beyond to do same in honour of our late hero”.
Coach Alphonsus Dike, who claimed to have discovered the late soccer idol for the National team, further recalled how he saw him jogging with a football at the Dan Anyiam stadium, before asking him to join the then Spartans Football Club, Owerri.
There is no other time to follow up the issue of Sam Okwaraji’ matter, other than now. Let’s all do it together. First, let the Number 6 Jersey be withdrawn from the Super Eagles team, even if it is for 30 years only.