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Victor Osimhen: Lagos street hawker to cult figure in Naples

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Picture: Isabella Bonotto/AFP/April 23, 2023 – Napoli’s Nigerian forward Victor Osimhen celebrates after winning in the Italian Serie A football match between Juventus and Napoli at the Juventus stadium in Turin.

By Oluwaseun Tella and Akinlolu Akinola

The Stadio Diego Armando Maradona resounded with triumphant chants of “Victor Osimhen!” as Napoli celebrated a 1-0 victory against Fiorentina on May 7. The win came after securing the Serie A title three days earlier with a 1-1 draw against Udinese, marking Napoli’s first Scudetto in 33 years. Osimhen’s crucial equaliser in the title-deciding match and his consistent goal contributions throughout the season played a pivotal role in their historic triumph, earning him immense appreciation from the fans. These chants not only celebrated Napoli’s victory but also signified Osimhen’s rise to cult status in Naples, drawing parallels with the iconic Argentine, Diego Maradona.

Born in Olusosun, a poverty-stricken community near Lagos’ largest dumpsite, Osimhen faced numerous challenges as the youngest of six siblings. To supplement their meagre income, his family sold bottled water in the bustling Lagos traffic. In a country where aspiring footballers often have limited opportunities, Osimhen owes a debt of gratitude to his brother Andrew, who worked as a newspaper vendor, shouldering the family’s financial burden and protecting Victor’s football dreams. Recognised by local scouts, Osimhen’s talent earned him a place at Nigeria’s renowned Ultimate Strikers Academy, leading to his selection for the U-17 National team.

Osimhen’s immense potential was showcased during the 2015 FIFA U-17 World Cup in Chile. With a remarkable ten goals, he propelled the Golden Eaglets to victory, clinching both the trophy and the prestigious Golden Boot award.

Following this outstanding performance, he secured a move to Germany’s Wolfsburg but faced setbacks due to injuries and disappointments. Struggling to replicate his earlier success, Osimhen remained goalless in 16 appearances for the club before being loaned to Sporting Charleroi in Belgium. However, it was at Sporting Charleroi where Osimhen found his rhythm once again, netting an impressive 20 goals in 36 matches. Recognising his talent, the club made his transfer permanent in 2019. Subsequently, Osimhen secured a move to the French side Lille, initially for a fee of €13 million. He continued his prolific goal-scoring form, recording 18 goals across various competitions in his debut season and earning notable accolades such as Ligue 1 Player of the Month, the Marc-Vivien Foé Award for the best African player in the league, and Lille’s Player of the Year.

Following his remarkable stint at Lille, Osimhen’s star continued to rise when Napoli secured his services for a staggering €70 million in 2020, making him the most expensive African player in history and the most expensive signing in the club’s history. Nonetheless, doubts emerged about his ability to justify such a monumental investment. Despite netting 10 goals in 24 matches during his debut season with Napoli, Osimhen faced criticism for inconsistent performances. Nevertheless, his unwavering determination and resilience endeared him to Napoli fans. He diligently addressed his weaknesses and adapted to the demands of Italian football. Despite enduring a severe facial injury that sidelined him for several matches in the 2021/22 season, he remarkably scored 18 goals in all competitions. In the just-concluded season, he scored 26 goals in just 32 appearances, winning the League’s top goal scorer award and breaking the record of Cameroonian Samuel Eto’o as the African player with the most Serie A goals in a season. He further scored 5 goals in 6 UEFA Champions League appearances.

Given his success, Osimhen has attracted the interests of top European football clubs, including Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool, Paris Saint-Germain, Bayern Munich, and Real Madrid. During an interview with FIVE, former Manchester United player Rio Ferdinand stated that the English football club must secure the signing of Osimhen, irrespective of the €150 million price tag. Ferdinand noted: “Go for it. Look at the current market. Who else is available? There is no other ready-made option.”

Today, Osimhen is revered at the Diego Maradona Stadium, having played an instrumental role in Napoli’s first Scudetto triumph since 1990. The streets of Naples now boast murals of Osimhen, and his life-size image can be found in bars and stores, solidifying his status as a genuine Napoli hero. Indeed, Osimhen has won the hearts and minds of Neapolitans, as seen in the impressive sales of replicas of his face mask (which he started wearing following a cheekbone injury) from stalls around the stadium. During an interview with Al Jazeera, Lolade Adewuiyi, the managing editor of Soccernet Nigeria, asserted that “Victor is reaching cult status with his dedication to the team, his embrace of the fans that we see when he celebrates his goals, and how they, in turn, have begun to infuse him into daily life… Perhaps he will become a Maradona-esque figure if he leads them to the Serie A and the Champions League titles.” Similarly, Andrea Morganti, a fan of Napoli, stated that he hoped Osimhen would remain in Naples despite the interests he is attracting from clubs in top European leagues. He asserted that the prolific scorer’s connection with Neapolitans goes beyond his goals. “It’s about everything, the way he moves on the pitch and just the relationship he has with us fans outside the pitch. There isn’t a moment that he doesn’t stop to say hello and autograph our shirts. He is a humble boy who loves the city.”

Osimhen has thus emerged as a Nigerian cultural ambassador as he unequivocally showcases Nigeria’s rich cultural heritage, such as its music, art, cuisine, and traditions. By leveraging his platform, Osimhen has brought attention to Nigeria’s vibrant cultural scene and inspired others to explore and appreciate the country’s heritage.

While comparisons between Osimhen and the club’s legend Diego Maradona, who led Napoli to two Serie A titles in 1987 and 1990, as well as a UEFA Cup victory in 1989, have been made, it seems a herculean task for him to fill Maradona’s shoes. However, Osimhen has carved out his own place in Napoli’s history by contributing to the team’s success, scoring goals, and creating memorable moments on the pitch. Osimhen has epitomised the club’s ethos of courage, determination, resilience, and fearlessness.

Oluwaseun Tella is the head of the Future of Diplomacy at the University of Johannesburg’s Institute for the Future of Knowledge.

Akinlolu Akinola is a postgraduate student in the Department of Political Science at the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Nigeria.