Memory Lane: How Nigeria midfield maestro Sam Okwaraji died thirty years ago

Sam Okwaraji

The August 12, 1989 Italia ’90 World Cup qualifying match with Angola could had just been another match day. But it is now ever recalled, not for the result, which was favourable to Nigeria at least in the short run, but for the bizarre happenings.

It was just a day to the 10th anniversary of a previous disaster that claimed 24 lives at the National Stadium, Lagos.

Nigeria desperately needed to win the tie against Angola to be in contention of leading a World Cup qualifying group that also had Gabon and Cameroon.

The result of the penultimate match in Gabon which Nigeria against formbooks had lost 1-2 made the August 12, 1989 match the more important.

Hon. Nduka Irabor and some members of the Nigerian Football Supporters’ Club helping the fainted fans into an ambulance.

Besides, it was to be the first match after a long closure of the National Stadium, Lagos which was undergoing upgrading for an anticipated hosting of the then World Youth Championship (now u-20 World Cup) in 1991.

Nigeria had had to play their home matches at the low-capacity Lekan Salami Stadium, Ibadan until the National Stadium, Lagos was reopened.

Expectedly, the stadium was jam-packed for a teeming crowd that appeared to have been starved for close to two years that the stadium had been closed for refurbishment.

The crowd thronged the 40,000-capacity stadium, filling it nearly 20,000 over. About 4,000 others were stranded outside, making rounds to the 12 ramps leading into the main- bowl.

Announcements blared from the public address system directing the crowd outside to gates D, E and F leading to the southern pavilion at the Lagos end of the field. Gates had been opened nearly seven hours to kick off.

The spectators’ stands were overfilled, resulting in jostling and pushing, chokes, suffocation, exhaustion and soon, deaths! Moments before kick-off, some of the spectators around the covered terraces began to faint in ones and twos.

Efforts to revive the fans yielded no result One after the other, they died Few people might have noticed the unusual incident of an ambulance moving on the just refurbished tartan tracks to convey the fainted fans after efforts at reviving them by medical personnel had failed.

Then another ambulance came again. Ambulance movements became a common sight.

The stadium’s clinic with only three beds became jam-packed with unconscious people.

Medical personnel said there were so many of them and they had to be treated on the bare floor. Fifteen of them had to be taken to the General Hospital in Lagos.

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Journey to the morgue begins One Mutiu Salami, a 14-year old victim who was rushed to the General Hospital and regained consciousness three days later narrated his experience: “As the match drew to an end, everybody was rushing. They rushed me and I fell down. The next thing I knew was finding myself at the hospital”.

He was lucky. It was more disastrous for others. Five of them died. Niyi Mosuro, a 15- year-old schoolboy from Ijebu-Ode was one of the victims

identified. August 12, 1989, was the first time he would watch a football match at the National Stadium.

It was the last day he lived. Wale Mosuro, his uncle, said Niyi was not quite a football enthusiast. His body was discovered in the morgue. Others identified were bodies of Shehu Tijani and Okorie Agwu.

Everything went awry that sunny August 12, 1989. Sad incidents that would catch worldwide attention were unfolding. From the sidelines, five football fans were suffocated to death. Football, a national passion, overnight turned a national horror.

The standard of soccer in the Nigeria-Angola match fell below expectation even though both teams paraded a pack of tested professionals.

Tackling was rough. Each side lost a penalty kick. Austin Eguavoen lost that of Nigeria.

A caution from the referee, which in a twist of fate was a ‘red card’ from life. This is the last known photograph of Okwaraji alive.

His first match at the Lagos National Stadium turned the last time he played and lived.

But the biggest disaster of the day was imminent. As the drab match progressed, an Angolan player slumped.

Medical personnel rushed to administer treatment. It was barely 10 minutes to the end of the match. As attention focussed on the injured player, and while some fans that had fainted by the sidelines were being attended to, the unexpected happened.

Dreadlocks haired Samuel Okwaraji, the Nigerian bubbling mid-field maestro, collapsed and fell face down. Few people would have thought it was mere exhaustion.

“We all thought he merely fainted and that he was going to recover,” Etim Esin, a teammate, remarked the following day at the then Durbar Hotel (now Golden Tulip, Festac Town) abode of the team.

The moment Okwaraji slumped…The nearest player to Samuel Okwaraji, Samson

Siasia, rushed to the prostrate form and tried him to face up. What he saw was frightening as he put his hands on his head in despair.

“The way I saw him, he was gasping and foaming. His teeth were gritty… No one could easily ascertain the cause of his death. It still remains a mystery.

But one of the doctors that first attended to him told this reported that Samuel Okwaraji died “very fast”. He may have died on the pitch.


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