Anticipation was high ahead of Nigeria’s critical World Cup qualifier with Angola in August 1989. More than 100,000 fanatical supporters, well beyond that stadium’s 80,000 official capacity, had been crammed into the National Stadium in Lagos on a baking hot day with an eager sense of heightened tension and excitement since long before the match was due to kick-off.
The massed ranks of Nigerian fans sung, danced and screamed themselves hoarse as the tension built ahead of kick-off. This wasn’t a day that would turn out how they expected, however. Rather, it was a day that would be touched by tragedy.
The Green Eagles, as they were known at the time, were neck-and-neck with the Indomitable Lions of Cameroon at the top of African qualifying Group C. The group winner would enter the final playoff for one of Africa’s two places at Italia 90. Nigeria were one of the continent’s strongest teams, although they were yet to grace the global tournament. Indeed, they had been runners-up at the previous Africa Cup of Nations the year before, losing out narrowly in a 1-0 defeat to Cameroon, the lone goal only coming via a spot kick.
This was a talented generation of Nigerian players, including the likes of Rachidi Yekini, Peter Rufai, Stephen Keshi and Augustine Eguavoen. Hopes were high that they would be the ones to claim a place in the World Cup finals, and to build on the breakthroughs made by Tunisia in 1978, Algeria in 1982 and Morocco in 1986.
A 2-0 victory over Cameroon earlier in the group intensified the feeling that this was Nigeria’s time to make their mark on the world stage. But a defeat in Gabon in the previous match had threatened to ruin the campaign. A win against Angola in their penultimate match was now not only crucial, it was essential. Days later they would be travelling to Yaoundé for the final decisive clash with Cameroon with everything on the line. But if they could beat Angola and avoid defeat in Cameroon, that playoff place would be theirs.
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The first signs of the tragic events about to unfold occurred well before kick-off. In what was the first match back in the National Stadium after a long closure for development ahead of the World Youth Championships due to arrive in 1991, overcrowding led to horrific conditions for many in amongst the crushed crowd. There were numerous tales of people being thrown around like rag dolls, unable to remain in control of themselves. As kick-off approached, the inevitable pushing, choking and exhaustion, combined with the intense heat, soon led to people being crushed beyond critical limits.
Soon there was fainting, suffocating and, inevitably, death. Echoing the scenes that occurred at Hillsborough only a few months earlier, bodies were pulled from the crowd and laid on the running track surrounding the pitch. Disorganised confusion reigned. The authorities were ill-equipped to deal with the impending disaster and, seemingly unable to put an end to what had begun to unfold, the calamitous chaos continued.
Ambulances soon appeared, but the stadium’s minimal medical facilities were soon swamped. Numerous unconscious people lay strewn in a facility with only three beds, many ending up being treated on the floor. Fifteen were taken to the General Hospital in Lagos. Five spectators died. Amidst the confusion, though, the game still went ahead.
Nigeria missed an early penalty, but belatedly took the lead through a thunderous Stephen Keshi header moments before half-time and maintained it through to the end for their crucial victory. To add to the tragedy that had already unfolded off the pitch, there was one more terrible twist of fate to come on the pitch.
With ten minutes of the match remaining, Nigeria’s energetic 24-year-old midfielder collapsed and lay stricken on the turf, well away from the ball.
Unlike many African players at the time, Okwaraji had been little-known in his homeland, having played his while career in Europe. He had left Nigeria in 1982 to study International Law in Italy. He put his studies on temporary hold to sign for the mighty Roma as a youth player. Having failed to make a breakthrough there, and having belatedly completed his studies, he moved on to Dinamo Zagreb in Yugoslavia and then on to Klagenfurt in Austria.
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On the fringes at both clubs, he struggled to get sufficient game time to further his development, but the talent was always undeniable. He was a tricky dribbler, with a knack for the incisive creativity that all teams crave. It earned him a move to Bundesliga side VfB Stuttgart who immediately loaned him to SSV-Ulm in the 2. Bundesliga.
It was in Ulm that Okwaraji blossomed into the dynamic midfielder that forced his way into the international squad. “No Okwaraji, No Ulm” was a new terrace chant for the West German side. While the national team were on a tour in West Germany, the Nigeria Football Association chairman, John Obakpolor, was told of the talented Nigerian playing locally, and agreed with the coaches Manfred Höner and Paul Hamilton to bring him into the training camp.
Okwaraji immediately impressed, leading to his inclusion in the national set-up in late 1987, joining the squad for an Olympic qualifier against Algeria. He lit up that particular game with his dynamic movement and technical ability, making him an instant hit with the watching crowd.
He went on to play for the national team at the 1988 Africa Cup of Nations in Morocco, playing a key role throughout Nigeria’s run to the final. He started all of Nigeria’s matches, becoming a reliable and dynamic influence at the heart of the side, bringing a contagious enthusiasm and professional work-ethic to add to his burgeoning talents.
His goal, a thumping drive from outside the box, in a drawn group match against Cameroon was arguably the finest strike of the tournament – his only strike for Nigeria. He was influential in the team’s success in reaching the final, though they would ultimately fall short, against Cameroon once again. He also went to the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, though Nigeria disappointed. Okwaraji remained central to the squad as it began the process of building towards their ultimate aim of a place at the 1990 World Cup. He was a key player as the campaign drew towards its conclusion and that fateful match with Angola.
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As Okwaraji lay motionless on the field, his teammate Samson Siasia was the first to reach him. He bent over his stricken colleague, only to immediately stand again, his hands on his head in obvious distress and despair. “The way I saw him,” recalled Siasia, “he was gasping and foaming. His teeth were gritty.”
A medical team soon reached Okwaraji and quickly called for an ambulance. The nearest one was parked on the opposite side of the pitch, but farcically this wouldn’t start. Four ball boys had to push the ambulance to give it a jump start before it could go to his assistance. They took him to hospital, while the game continued to its conclusion, the authorities seemingly oblivious to any event other than seeing the match to its end.
Okwaraji was rushed to hospital but was soon pronounced dead. He may even have died on the pitch. Doctors would later say that he died of congested heart failure, with an autopsy showing he had an enlarged heart. Speculation circulated that the hot weather was a factor, but we will never know.
The team, and indeed the watching nation, were stunned. “We all thought he had merely fainted, and that he was going to recover,” his teammate Etim Esin remarked the next day as the news of Okwaraji’s death broke across Nigeria. “Everything happened so fast and I still can’t believe it that a few minutes before he died he was running alongside the rest of us on the pitch.”
He had only fleetingly been a part of the Nigeria team, his contributions cut short just as they were beginning to bear fruit. His first ever appearance at the Lagos National Stadium would also be his last. Nigeria lost a truly gifted footballer, and with it the opportunity for a gifted generation also disappeared.
The deaths that day, both on and off the pitch, affected the Nigeria team in the final reckoning for World Cup qualification. They did hold on to beat Angola 1-0, but 15 days later they would lose the final, critical match in Cameroon, narrowly missing out to the Indomitable Lions who went on to shock the world in Italia 90. It had all become rather meaningless by then, of course, but qualification would have been a fitting tribute to those who fell that day. Sadly, it wasn’t to be. Instead, Nigeria was left with just the pain of the darkest day in its football history.
By Aidan Williams @yad_williams