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33 YEARS AFTER, EX-TEAMMATES PAY TRIBUTES TO OKWARAJI

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Samuel Okwaraji carried out of pitch after he slumped and died while playing for Nigeria in a 1990 World Cup qualifier,

TODAY makes it 33 years since Samuel Okwaraji slumped and died while playing for Nigeria in a 1990 World Cup qualifier, but some of his teammates are yet to get over his painful exit, The PUNCH reports.

Okwaraji slumped during the Super Eagles’ 1990 World Cup qualifier against Angola on August 12, 1989 at the National Stadium, Lagos and was rushed to hospital where he finally passed on.

About five fans died same day at the overcrowded 40,000-capacity stadium, as the Eagles won the qualifier 1-0 under chaotic conditions.

Doctors said Okwaraji died of congestive heart failure, with an autopsy revealing he had an enlarged heart and high blood pressure.

Okwaraji’s teammate Henry Nwosu, a 1980 Africa Cup of Nations winner, described the fallen midfield maestro as a true patriot who wanted to prove to Nigerians that he was a good player but died in the process.

“Okwaraji was a gentle boy who was ready to do anything for people around him and particularly his country,” Nwosu told The PUNCH.

“He was that player who was ready to die for his country and he died for his country. He was such a player who hated to be cheated but unfortunately, death cheated him in such a painful manner. It is painful that he’s been gone for so long.”

Former Eagles coach, Samson Siasia, who was closest to Okwaraji when he slumped on the fateful day, said the late Austria Klagenfurt and Stuttgart midfielder slumped after he could not breathe well due to the hot weather.

“You just reminded me of something very painful,” Siasia told The PUNCH.

“He was a good friend and teammate. I just noticed he was getting choked up like he could not breathe well and then he fell. I was so scared just like the other players on the pitch were.

“I tried to help him stay alive by calling on the medical team and urging them to be fast. I believed they played their part but it was just unfortunate it happened the way it did,” Siasia said.

Another of Okwaraji’s teammates Etim Esin, added, “Okwaraji was my good friend back then, he was my roommate. It’s really sad and till date, I still remember him just like yesterday. It is always difficult to forget an individual who was so good even in death. I believe if he were alive we would have made it to the 1990 World Cup.

Former Eagles midfielder, Ademola Adeshina, blamed the harsh weather for the demise of Okwaraji.

“It’s already 33 years since he (Okwaraji) died. You just reopened the wound again,” Adeshina told our correspondent.

“Okwaraji was a good player. I could recall that he was my roommate. We left Belgium together for the Eagles game against Angola. He was jovial and very lovely.

“He just slumped on the pitch but I could remember that day that the sun was so scorching even for some of us like Samson Siasia, Henry Nwosu, the late Stephen Keshi, and myself who had adapted to the Nigerian weather, before we travelled to Europe.

“The weather was so harsh for him. If you remember in the first half he didn’t really play as many Nigerians expected.

“When we got to the dressing room, our coach then, Paul Hamilton, spoke with him on what was expected of him because he was anonymous on the pitch.

“So, within the three of us, Nwosu, Siasia and myself, we decided to get the ball to him to showcase himself. Because the more he got on the ball, the more he’ll perform.

“But within that short period of time, as he was getting the balls from us, he was moving around the pitch; he could not cope with the weather.

“Siasia and I were the closest to him when he slumped. He was substituted that day, and we lost him from that point.

“I was at the lobby in our hotel when the late Keshi informed me that the then President, Ibrahim Babangida, called to tell him that Okwaraji had died. It made us so sad that night.”

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JAPAN, SPAIN INTO W’CUP LAST 16, GERMANY CRASH OUT

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Spain's teammates react at the end of the Qatar 2022 World Cup Group E football match between Japan and Spain at the Khalifa International Stadium in Doha on December 1, 2022. (Photo by JAVIER SORIANO / AFP)

Spain staggered through to the World Cup last 16 on Thursday despite a 2-1 defeat by Japan, who remarkably won Group E on a rollercoaster night which saw four-time champions Germany eliminated.

Japan secured another incredible triumph after beating Germany in their opening game, with their progression from the “group of death” one of the greatest achievements in the country’s footballing history.

For a few heart-stopping minutes Spain were poised to head out when Costa Rica were leading in the other game, but the 2010 champions squeezed through after Germany did them a favour by coming back to beat Los Ticos.

Spain and Germany ended on four points each, but La Roja progressed on goal difference.

Alvaro Morata sent Spain ahead early on with a towering header, but Japan dramatically struck back at the start of the second half.

Ritsu Doan and Ao Tanaka’s goals saw them mount a sensational comeback, just as they did against Germany.

Tanaka’s goal was highly controversial after the officials relied on VAR to decide Kaoru Mitoma had kept the ball in play by a hair’s breadth to set him up.

Spain struggled to create chances against a staunch Japanese defence in the final stages, with the Asian side aware that conceding another goal would see them eliminated.

Japanese players collapsed at full-time in celebration, exhausted and elated, while the substitutes raced on to celebrate.

Spain face Morocco in the last 16, while Japan play Croatia.

– Rollercoaster night –

Both sides made five changes, with Luis Enrique bringing in Morata to lead the line, and handing Alejandro Balde and Nico Williams their full debuts.

Japan started with five at the back, hoping to keep Spain at bay, but pressed high in attack to try and capitalise on any mistakes.

Spain are sometimes guilty of glaring defensive errors and Pau Torres exemplified that with a sloppy touch which led to Japan’s first chance, fired into the side-netting by Junya Ito.

Morata sent La Roja ahead in the 12th minute with a towering header from Cesar Azpilicueta’s cross, rekindling the connection which occasionally worked at Chelsea after the striker’s arrival in 2017.

Japan coach Hajime Moriyasu replaced the ineffective Takefuso Kubo and Yuto Nagatomo at the break with Mitoma and Doan, and it paid instant dividends.

Balde lost the ball under pressure and from the edge of the box winger Doan hammered past Unai Simon, who might have done more to keep it out.

Three minutes later and Japan had turned the game on its head, Tanaka bundling home from on the goalline after Mitoma had miraculously kept the ball in play as he crossed it — according to VAR.

Spain were shellshocked and struggled to react, with Luis Enrique making a raft of substitutions to try and regain control.

The coach, alone and perched on the edge of his technical area, was unaware that for a few moments his team faced elimination, when Costa Rica took the lead against Germany in the other game to go 2-1 ahead.

Spain survived, progressing thanks to their superior goal difference, on a night that was far more terrifying than they had anticipated — and Japan secured a hugely unlikely achievement.

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AL HILAL MAY REPLACE IGHALO WITH RONALDO

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Portugal Striker, Cristiano Ronaldo

Saudi Arabian champions, Al Hilal, are not keen to extend the contract of Odion Ighalo as they explore the options of landing former Manchester United forward Cristiano Ronaldo in January, PUNCH Sports Extra reports.

Al Hilal Striker, Odion Ighalo

Ighalo arrived Al Hilal from rivals Al Shabab in January for a fee in the region of €2.9m and his contract with the club ends June 30, 2023.

According to Sky Sports, Al Hilal are preparing to make the first mega offer to Ronaldo barely a week after the 37-year-old became a free agent.

Ronaldo and Manchester United parted ways after the Portuguese icon launched a scathing attack on the club, manager Erik Ten Haag and some of the club’s players in an explosive interview with journalist Piers Morgan.

Al Hilal are big admirers of Ronaldo and reports suggest the Saudi Arabian giants made a proposal for the former Real Madrid star’s signature during the summer transfer market. Manchester United, however, turned down their multi-million euros approach and that could change, though, with Ronaldo free to negotiate his transfer.

“He is one player Al Hilal is looking to sign but that depends on some departures,” the Sky Sports report stated.

Spanish newspaper outlet Marca, also revealed that Ronaldo sensationally agreed a two-and-a-half year deal with Al Nassr worth an eye-watering £172.9m per year, that will see him play until the age of 40.

Should Ighalo chooses to stay at Al Hilal despite Ronaldo’s arrival, the Nigerian will go head-to-head with the Portuguese superstar.

The Nigerian striker fired the goals that powered the team to win the Saudi Premier League title on the season’s final day last year.

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MOROCCO SEND CANADA OUT OF W’CUP, SECURE KNOCKOUT SPOT

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Hakim Ziyech Celebrates his goal against Canada

Morocco on Thursday secured a spot in the World Cup knockout stage after they beat Canada 2-1

For the first time in 36 years, Morocco march on to the last 16 as they finished top of Group F.

The celebrations at the final whistle on the pitch showed how the African side cherish the win.

In a group supposed to be filled with the best of Europe, Morocco emerged top of Group F with Ziyech and En-Nesyri locating the back of the net in a phenomenal display.

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