BRAND OF THE MONTH
By Akanbi Adeyemo
On the last day of the year 2022, Nigerian football player, Victor James Osimhen, made the front pages of Italy’s most popular sport papers – La Gazzetta dello Sport and Corriere dello Sport – prelude to the Italian Serie A clash between his club, Napoli FC and giants Internazionale Milan.
The papers analysed how Osimhen and Belgium’s top striker Romelu Lukaku would play leading roles in the big clash as the league resumed four days later.
Actually, the Nigerian forward is the leading scorer in the Serie A with nine goals, ahead of the resumption of the season following the FIFA World Cup finals in Qatar.
For the Nigerian forward, it has been a long journey from a Lagos slum, where he eked a living alongside his senior brother, Andrew and four other siblings by hustling and hawking satchet water on the expressway, to the dizzying heights of media acclaim in Europe’s Top Five.
Incredibly, the journey from racing barefooted behind moving buses and cars to sell cheap water and household items in a teeming West African city to being one of the acclaimed stellar talents of world football had taken slightly more than half a dozen years.
Born Victor James Osimhen to parents from the Esan Local Government Area of Edo State in South-South Nigeria (both are now of blessed memory), Victor endured straitened circumstances in penurious environments from a young age, but Paul Erekewe, the coach who first saw the boy kick a ball, would remark in later years that Victor had evinced enough confidence, gusto, spirit and ability to be a high-rider.
“There were four of them, and they never believed in losing. They always wanted to win even if we were having a training match. The Club’s name was Olusosun United. However, Victor was the luckiest of them as the three others didn’t have the fortune of being spotted and given opportunity to play for Nigeria and taken abroad.
“Victor was good with headers from the beginning and still kept working hard at being even better. He was also a good shooter of the ball and added aggressiveness as well.”
Olusosun was the name of the area in Ikeja Local Government Area of Lagos State where Victor grew up, and accommodated of the largest dumpsites in the city.
Under 17 National Team
A year after Nigeria’s U17 boys won a record fourth FIFA World Cup title in the United Arab Emirates, it was time to incubate another group that would defend the title in Chile in 2015. Victor showed up in the camp in Abuja with elephantine confidence, but failed to impress in the screening session he was allotted and told to pack his boots and leave.
“Victor had been given the opportunity but did not impress in that particular session. The coaching crew had told him to leave but as I saw him going, something told me to call him back. I pleaded with the coaches to give him another chance because to me, he had the right physical attributes and the right mentality. They did and the rest is history,” team secretary, Tayo Egbaiyelo. said a few years later.
In Chile, as Nigeria won a record-extending fifth world title, beating Mali in an all-African final in Vina del Mar, Victor scored an unprecedented 10 goals, which remains a tournament scoring record and earned him the championship’s Golden Boot as top scorer and the Silver Ball as second most valuable player, behind team mate and captain Kelechi Nwakali.
“I remember an interesting moment during half time of the Final Match in Vina del Mar. We were awarded a penalty kick in the first half but it was wasted by Ebere Osinachi. In the dressing room, Victor launched at him but was restrained by team officials. It was obvious that he was furious at the manner the penalty was wasted,” recalled Morakinyo Abodunrin, who was then the team’s media officer.
Africa’s Best Young Player
A few months later, at the Confederation of African Football Awards held in Abuja, Victor Osimhen was named Africa’s Best Young Player.
The award, plus his remarkable exploits in South America, spurred a move to Europe, and after rejecting two other clubs, Victor signed a three-and-half year contract with VFL Wolfsburg in the German Bundesliga.
Rise and Rise in Europe
A series of unfortunate injuries restricted his development in Germany, and after playing only 12 league matches in two years, he was loaned out to Belgian Jupiler side Charleroi.
In Belgium, determined not to become a failure, he started like a house on fire, scoring in his first two matches and then raking up a total of 20 goals in 36 games.
Impressed, the Les Zebres (The Zebras) quickly activated their option to acquire him on a permanent basis, and he was more than happy to remain in Belgium.
The following year, after cameo appearances at the Africa Cup of Nations finals in Egypt (where Nigeria finished in third place), Victor Osimhen was snapped up by French Ligue 1 side, Lille OSC, for which he scored 18 goals in all competitions in the 2019/2020 season.
“I wasn’t disturbed in any way by some of the negative comments and stuff that were written about me during my period at Wolfsburg,” Osimhen would tell Nigeria’s leading national daily, THE NATION, some years ago.
“Some journalists speculated so much about my career but the truth was that I was even sick and I couldn’t join the team for the pre-season. It took me about three weeks to come out of that sickness and I really thank God for my life.
“I learnt a lot in terms of football and life at Wolfsburg because I was surrounded by good people. I perfectly understood almost 90% of the way they play in Germany because I wanted to learn and improve on my quality and that was the main reason I actually went to Wolfsburg.
“They have one of the best facilities in the world at Wolfsburg and Germany is one of the most powerful countries in the world.”
There is a saying that when the going gets tough, the tough gets going. Tough situations make some persons better, and having learnt resilience, preservation and perseverance on the streets of Lagos, the tough times at the Volkswagen Arena only made Victor the more determined to succeed in his professional career.
Napoli & Super Eagles
In the year 2020, Osimhen moved to Napoli SC in the Italian Serie A for a club-record Euro 70million.
He was named Serie A’s Best Young Player for the season 2021-2022.
“I love winning; I never contemplate losing when I am on the football field. It is in my bones that I am capable of winning all the time.”
Following his debut for Nigeria in a 3-0 win over Togo in a friendly in Paris in the summer of 2017, Osimhen (which means ‘God is Good’ in his Ishan dialect) has grown steadily into the Nigeria senior side, and has made tremendous impact in the squad in the past three years.
Many a game he has taken by the scruff. In a 2021 AFCON qualifier in Maseru, Lesotho had taken the lead against the Super Eagles. But Osimhen scored two goals and made two others as Nigeria won 4-2 to brighten their chances of reaching the final tournament in Cameroon.
Months earlier, in an U23 AFCON qualifying match against Sudan in Asaba, with Nigeria having lost the first leg 2-0, Osimhen scored two goals and made another as the 1996 Olympic champions eliminated their visitors.
Nigeria sorely missed the poacher at the Africa Cup of Nations in Cameroon, where they exited the tournament at the Round of 16, despite a brilliant run in the group phase. The absence of a clinical finisher was obvious as chances went begging in the Round of 16 defeat to Tunisia.
In the 2022 World Cup qualifiers, Osimhen staved off the scare of Cape Verde, scoring as Nigeria were held 1-1 in Lagos, sending them into the playoff. In the playoff against Ghana, the lanky striker fought like a Trojan in both legs.
He scored what would have taken Nigeria to Qatar 2022 – but the Tunisian referee disallowed the strike after long consultation with the VAR, during the second leg in Abuja.
The disappointment of missing out on the World Cup in Qatar has ebbed somewhat, thanks to a flawless start to the 2023 AFCON qualifiers. Against Sierra Leone in Abuja, Osimhen’s mulish effort turned out the winner in a 2-1 win, after the Leone Stars had pulled ahead at the Moshood Abiola National Stadium.
Three days later, in the Moroccan city of Agadir, Victor Osimhen was at the heart of Nigeria’s international scoring record in a 10-0 defeat of Sao Tome and Principe.
The boy from Edo State scored four of the goals and was handed the match ball.
Kitan Olateru-Olagbegi, his manager, said in December 2022: “My personal interactions with him since his time at Nigeria’s U17 team show his big ambitions for himself and for the country. Victor Osimhen says he wants to win trophies for his club, but most importantly for his country.
“He wants to try and leave his mark as a Super Eagles player and help the team win in any way he can. There are still a few areas of his game to improve which he is constantly working on and the country will eventually be better for it.”
Serie A Top Scorer 2022: 9 goals
Hat trick: vs Sassuolo: October 29, 2022