Special report: Sam Garba Okoye: How car crash deprived Nigeria of its best football star

Late Sam Garba Okoye

The year 1974:

Many school kids from St. Theresa Boys’ Primary School, Ansar U Deen Primary School adjacent to Scala Cinema (now defunct), St. Luke’s Primary School near Standard newspapers abandon classes mixed with other loafing town kids sneak into the training football pitch of the Jos Cultural Centre at Church Street.

Other adults also leave their places of businesses along Ahmadu Bello Way two streets away and the nearby Jos Main Market, for the same reason. To watch one of Nigeria’s soccer giants, Mighty Jets Football Club, in training. The team has an array of stars including Ismaila Mabo, the Atuegbo brothers-Alloysius and Andrew ply their trade. However, many were there basically to watch the legendary Sam Garba Okoye.

International exploits

At just 18 years, Sam featured for Nigeria’s 4-1 international friendly victory against Gabon on August 30, 1965. At 21 he represented Nigeria at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico.

On the whole, he played for his fatherland 17 times from 1965-1973 with five goals to his kitty. But at just 16 in 1973, he was in the Mighty Jets team, among the best in Nigeria spear-heading it as a stricker until 1974.

According to Kunle Solaja, one of Nigeria’s best sport writers, Sam was one of the exciting playmakers in the Green Eagles, (now Super Eagles) that had an almost overnight transformed from the schoolboy game to national limelight.

He led the Nigerian Academicals to the country’s first ever victory over Ghana in Kumasi. Nigeria won the encounter 1-0 in Accra and went ahead with another 2-1 victory in Lagos. The short player was easily identifiable on the field as he had a rolled up white handkerchief on his head.

Solaja said with Mighty Jets of Jos, he featured in several Challenge Cup finals. The most memorable was in 1972 when, with five minutes left of play, Sam scored two quick goals to stalemate the match at 2-2 against Bendel Insurance. In the replay at the Liberty Stadium, Ibadan, the very first cup final to be played out of Lagos, his Mighty Jets of Jos still lost 3-2 to SBendel Insurance.

Incidentally too, the last time Garba scored in the Challenge Cup was the last time the competition’s final game was played at Onikan Stadium, the competition’s birthplace.

His last Challenge Cup match was in 1974, a 0-2 loss to Enugu Rangers.

He played his last international game for Nigeria in the away duel against Senegal on April 18, 1971. Nigeria lost the game 2-1 and failed to qualify for the 1972 Olympic Games. After his retirement from international football, Sam took to coaching and was a principal coach in Plateau State when he died at age 30 in a motor accident on July 31, 1978.

It was indeed a total grief all over Plateau State and Nigeria with the death on one of the country’s best that was on the verge of helping groom talents. If you say he was Nigeria’s Pele, you won’t be wrong.

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