August 12, 1989, remains one of the most-talked-about days in Nigeria’s football history.
It was not the day the country recorded its biggest win or defeat in international football neither was it the day Nigeria qualified for the first FIFA World Cup.
It was a dark day in which one of the country’s promising football stars, Sam Okwaraji, died at the National Stadium in Lagos while in action for the national team in a World Cup qualifier against Angola.
Thirty years down the line, many things have been said about the dreadlocked footballer who was also a qualified lawyer before his death.
PREMIUM TIMES caught up with Peter Nieketien, former Nigeria midfielder who was in the Super Eagles camp with Late Okwaraji till a day before his sudden death
“We will continue to pray for his soul to rest in peace, we were together in the national team camp before the unfortunate incident happened,”
Nieketien recalled in an exclusive interview.
He continued: “It was at my club side (Iwayanwu National) that I first met Okwaraji when he came around for holiday, I think that was in 1987, we trained briefly together before he was introduced to the national team handlers and he was invited to the camp that is how we became teammates.”
Speaking on the last day he was with Okwaraji, Nieketien said he was dropped from the final squad to face Angola
“On that fateful day, Friday, the team list for those who will play on Saturday was announced and my name was excluded.
“I remember vividly that Okwaraji went to meet the coaches to ask why I was dropped.
“He believed that I was better than some of the players on the list selected to play in my position, I just told him not to bother himself that I wished the selected players the best of luck. But almost immediately in anger, I left Durbar hotel in anger and went back to Owerri.
“When that unfortunate incident happened, we were watching it on television because of the anger, I did not stay back to watch the game in Lagos at the Stadium but went straight to Owerri because I was with Iwayanwu National even though I am originally based in Lagos.
“When we saw him slump on TV, we were all praying that he comes out alive. But that was not the case, we lost him and it was quite unfortunate as we lost a passionate, patriotic and humble gentleman in the person of Sam Okwaraji.
“While we were at the camp in Durbar hotel, we were roommates, he was a very friendly person. In fact, he was one of the people initially making arrangements for me so I can go and play professionally in Belgium. He already came with some scouts but everything crumbled with his death, if not I could have played in Belgium in 1989, but in everything, we still have to thank God.”
Though the dream of playing in Belgium was aborted, Nieketie who is now a certified coach did play abroad in other countries
“After losing the FA Cup final to BCC Lions in 1989, I moved to Gabon, I was there for three years before moving to Malaysia and played there for three also before I went to Germany. I played just a season in Germany before I had an injury”
Asked what best way Okwaraji can be immortalized, Nieketie said adequate welfare for the family of the deceased was paramount.
“Okwaraji was a breadwinner before he died, the welfare of his family must be paramount if he is to be immortalised in any way,” he said.