KUNLE SOLAJA: Okwaraji’s Death was Neither The First nor The Last Nigeria’s Field-related Obituary


When Nigeria’s midfielder, Samuel Okwaraji slumped unchallenged and died on the turf of the National Stadium, Lagos on August 12, 1989, during Nigeria’s World Cup qualifying match with Angola, Sports Village Square recalls that it was not the first time Nigeria recorded an on-field death.

There were similar cases before that and there had been later. His death at the National Stadium and that of five other fans curiously occurred on the eve of the 10th anniversary of the death of 24 fans at the same stadium.


On the night of August 13, 1989, television views got more than they expected. Results and analyses of the presidential election held two days earlier were just trickling in.


It was also that night that the famous 12 two third theory of deciding the winner of the 1979 presidential election was first put up by Chief Richard Akinjide.


But the sports-inclined were awaiting the outcome of the epic encounter between IICC Shooting Stars and Bendel Insurance in the semi-final of the Challenge Cup, the national football cup that has since change to Coca-Cola FA Cup, the Federation Cup and now Aiteo Cup.


Both had met a decade before at the same stage and Bendel Insurance were not just surprise winners of the match, but also of the Challenge Cup.


Moreover, both were hot contenders for the National League title that Bendel had just won. Within the regulation time, the Shooting Stars had become victorious, winning 2-1. But there was no time for the expected celebration.


Their moment of joy had turned a national grief. Twenty-four fans had died in a stampede that ensued minutes after the match when the floodlights were suddenly switched off.


The tightly packed crowd made frantic and hurried rush towards the 72 exit points of the main bowl where iron gates had just been mounted.


But unknown to the rushing crowd, the exit points at the northern end of the stadium, the Gates A and B were still locked. Early arrivals to the locked gates were trapped to the barrier in the ensuing stampede.


The gates collapsed under the weight of the surging crowd and the early arrivals were trampled upon.


The unlucky fans were pressed upon the iron gates which later fell under the weight of the surging crowd. Some of them died of suffocation. Worse still, the National Sports Commission (NSC) medical centre was not opened that night.


So, there was no immediate medical attention. Ambulances at the sports complex could not also function for lack of personnel.


About 50 others in convulsive conditions were rushed to hospitals. By the time calm was restored, 24 fans were confirmed dead.


Almost 30 others were seriously wounded. The death toll was relayed in the late news announcement on television where viewers were possibly just awaiting electoral results and that of the classic Bendel Insurance /IICC Shooting Stars clash.


Two medical personnel, Dr. Alaba Efunkoya, a former chairman of Nigeria Table Tennis Association and Commander Sojinrin, a naval doctor who had come to watch the match and who was to become chairman of National Sports Commission some years later, assisted in offering first aid to some of the victims.


Two days later, the NSC issued a statement lamenting the national tragedy. That happened almost 10 years before that of Okwaraji and five football fans.


Yet it was not the first recorded tragedy on Nigeria’s football fields. There was a certain David Omofeye.


His was perhaps, the earliest recorded death on the Nigerian football field. It was on May 6, 1954. Omofeye was the left full back and captain of Railway.


He was popularly called “Idi” since 1932 during his days at Lagos Government School where his hefty hips attracted attention. He narrowly missed being selected as a member of the famed ‘UK Tourists’, Nigeria’s first national team.


He was an all-round athlete. The player, aged 32, hailed from Amukpe in the present day Delta State, a town that was to cause a big upset in the Challenge Cup in 1962.


Idi had played for Railway II team and graduated to Railway I to become its skipper when Titus Okere, a member of the famed 1949 UK Tourists, left in 1952.


He was in the Railway team that went to Cotonou and beat the home side 3-1 in 1948. Besides captaining the football team, he was also the skipper of the Railway Amateur Athletics Club where he was a hurdler.


He had no premonition of death when he trotted out of the dressing room, a minute after his colleagues, in the May 6, 1954, first division match with Marine.


Shouts of “Idi! Idi!” greeted him at the now Onikan Stadium, Lagos. It was the last ovation he received alive. He looked quite hale and hearty at the beginning of play, but fell suddenly after clearing the ball for his side.


Idi was rushed to the General Hospital, Lagos, where he was confirmed dead few minutes later. The match, which was the first encounter in the season for both Marine and Railway, had to be abandoned when the news of Idi’s death filtered into the stadium.


It was a shock and thousands were on hand to bid Nigeria’s first soccer martyr farewell two days later.


According to newspapers’ reports, for two hours, traffic was held up along Broad, Bamgbose and Lewis streets in Lagos. The procession began from Lagos General Hospital and moved along Broad Street and behind the Salvation Army Headquarters at Odunlami Street into Bamgbose Street.


At the Salvation Army Church where the funeral service took place, footballers in their different colours formed a guard of honour. The coffin, wrapped in the Union Jack, the flag of Britain, Nigeria’s colonial masters, bore the national athletics’ emblem of Nigeria.


After his death, a similar one to Okwaraji’s was that of John Akande. He was a player of IICC Shooting Stars which he joined barely six weeks before his untimely death.


It was on February 21, 1974 during a league match at the Olubadan Stadium. He had a collision with an opposing player and could not get up. He was rushed to a hospital where he was confirmed dead.


After Okwaraji, there was the death of Amir Angwe of Julius Berger. It was almost in similar fashion like those of Idi, Okwaraji and John Akande.


Angwe was a striker of Julius Berger. He died during an African Winners Cup semi-final with Maxaquine of Mozambique.


The striker, who in the 1990 final, opened scoring for BCC Lions in Tunisia, was aiming to be a part of Berger’s victory five years later.


Angwe came in as a substitute for Taiwo Oloyede who scored the only goal of the semi-final match.


He was pronounced clinically dead 10 minutes after the game. Angwe was barely 15 minutes old in the game when he fell without anyone having contact with him, bringing in sad memories of Sam Okwaraji who died six years earlier.


Help came too late apparently because the fallen player did not have body contact with anyone, making the Ugandan referee, Charles Massembe, and other players to probably think that the fall was either a time-killing tactics or it was due to exhaustion.


When he failed to rise, his team-mate, Ikponwosa Omeregie, who was nearest to him, had to call the attention of the referee who in turn called for medical attention.


It was a medical emergency. Four medical doctors among them, Jose Novao, the Portuguese team doctor of Maxaquine, battled in vain to revive Angwe.


The player’s wife, Ann, was reportedly in the crowd that saw her husband make the death fall.


“It’s too bad. It is not a normal thing in sports. He is not breathing. He had heart failure. Then his breathing also failed.

“I can’t confirm, but I think he has passed out. He is dead, but let’s wait for what your doctors can do,” said Jose Novao, the Portugal-born Maxaquine team doctor, before leaving the scene.


At that point, it was almost certain it was over. The Nigerian doctors also lost hope and called for an ambulance that took the player’s body to the General Hospital mortuary.
In an earlier quarter-final match with Motema Pembe of Zaire (now DR Congo), Angwe barely survived as he also slumped. But he could not be revived on the fateful October 29, 1995 match.


Controversy set in on why the late player was fielded in the match as the then NFA General Secretary, Sani Toro, said the club had been given medical advice against fielding the player, although his team mates believed he was healthy from the layman’s point of view, having participated in the trainings and endurance tests that preceded the match.


But according to the NFA which recalled that Angwe barely survived a similar incident during quarter-finals game with Motema Pembe, it was suggested that a more thorough examination of the player and his team-mates be made.


One doctor, from Imo Sports Council was asked to do the tests two days to the match with Maxaquine. The NFA claimed that the doctor advised against fielding of Angwe.


But a Julius Berger official claimed the doctor cleared him for the game on the day of the match while his team-mates said they had even expected him to be on the starting line-up as he played full time in the first leg two weeks earlier in Maputo.


That was weeks after he passed out in the game with Motema Pembe. Moreover, he reportedly practised for three hours with the remaining players two days to his death.

Jose Novao said from what he saw of available facilities at the Onikan Stadium, “the administration here did not seem well equipped to meet any serious emergency.


“What is clear to me is that he died of heart failure which a good test could have revealed before the game… I did not see any medical facility that could have assisted even the best doctor to save that situation.

“I am an orthopaedic surgeon and as football team manager, I expected to see better facilities than cold water and stretcher at the venue of an international match”.


The Maxaquine team doctor said although he sympathised with Nigeria over Angwe’s death, his team would not have taken it easy with the NFA if it was a player of his side that died.


“Of course, all my players were well tested before we came for the match, but emergencies can develop anytime and that is why FIFA and other international sports bodies take sports medicine very seriously,” remarked Novao.


What happened to Angwe remains a mystery. Two weeks after he collapsed in the game with Motema Pembe, he was invited to the Super Eagles’ camp preparatory to the 1995 Afro-Asian Cup matches with Uzbekistan.


In the Super Eagles’ camp, he reportedly told a newspaper of the incident at the Motema Pembe match: “I don’t know what happened, I just entered the match and the next thing I noticed was that I could neither breathe nor see. It was terrible. But I’m alright now.”


Sad Tales of the Tape

May 6, 1954: David Omofeye aka “Idi” slumped and died during a Lagos first divi­sion match between his club, Railway and Marine. This is Nigeria’s first recorded sudden death on the field.

February 21, 1974: John Akande, left winger, 22, died at a hospital following a collision with an opponent in a league match at the Olubadan Stadium. He was playing for Shooting Stars which he joined six weeks earlier.


Written By Kunle Solaja for Sports Village Square


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