Saturday, 23rd September 2023

Victor Osimhen: From zero to hero

By Ray Ekpu
16 May 2023   |   3:23 am
About 10 years ago there was a tall, lanky teenager selling pure water on the streets of Lagos where the traffic gridlock often offers an unallocated space for buying and selling almost anything under the sun.

Victor Osimhen (Photo by Alberto PIZZOLI / AFP)

About 10 years ago there was a tall, lanky teenager selling pure water on the streets of Lagos where the traffic gridlock often offers an unallocated space for buying and selling almost anything under the sun. This teenager, six feet one inch in height, was just one of the many young people who ought to be in school but are not. They have no means of going to school because they come from a background of poverty.

You can call them boys of the street. They play on the street, fight on the street, sell on the street and sleep on the street. They live a life of poverty and uncertainty. They do not know where the next meal will come from or whether it will come at all and if it comes whether it will be round or square. They belong to what has come to be known as the poorest of the poor, meaning that they are comprehensively poor, and that they are down and out.

In 2014, something happened. There was going to be a football screening session in Abuja to pick those who can be invited into the team that will play in the 2015 Under 17 FIFA football competition. This young man knew that if he got picked he would give his all. At age 16 he fitted the bill. He was also strong and hungry for food and fame. But there was a problem. He had no money to buy a flight ticket to Abuja where the screening was to take place. He decided to do a 12-hour journey by road from Lagos to Abuja.

At Abuja success was waiting for him. He was selected for the competition. He took his fate into his hands. At the competition, which Nigeria won he won the Golden Boot (highest goal scorer) and the Silver shoe award (second best player). The rest is history. The world stood up to recognise him. At that point he knew that the world was his oyster. He was likely, in the near future, to make fame and fortune his playmates.

Now, our young man, Victor Osimhen, is Africa’s highest goal scorer in Serie A in a single season. He is the hottest striker in Italy today. He has broken the record set by the Camerounian Samuel Eto’o for the most goals scored by an African player in one season in Serie A.

It took Eto’o 35 matches to score 22 goals whereas Osimhen achieved the feat in 27 matches. Additionally, Osimhen has also beaten George Weah’s goal record, which was 46. Now Osimhen has scored 47 goals this season, and Weah who is now the President of Liberia has congratulated him.

Osimhen is also the second Nigerian to win the Scudetto, the first being Obafemi Martins who won it in the 2005/2006 season with Inter Milan. Osimhen also won the Serie A Best Young Player Award in the 2021/2022 season.

Osimhen has played for Nigeria’s Under 17, Under 23 and the senior team, the Super Eagles where he has made 24 appearances and scored 15 goals.

His club, Napoli Football Club, has played for 33 years without winning the Scudetto, Italy’s football league trophy. That was when Diego Maradona helped the club to win it. Since then Maradona has been worshipped like a god in Naples. It is Osimhen’s goal that helped Napoli to win the Scudetto so he is treated today in Naples like royalty. His fortune has skyrocketed. Manchester United and Chelsea are chasing him for his signature. They know that his skilful artistry can be invaluable to their club sides and they are apparently prepared to pay a premium to get him.

Osimhen’s style of play is defined by his strength, his explosive runs, just like Kylian Mbappe, his athleticism and his intuitive placement of himself at goal-scoring positions. In the qualifiers for the 2023 AFCON, he scored four goals in the 10-0 defeat of Sao Tome and Principe by Nigeria. He is what can be called an elite striker, a man who finishes the job with clinical accuracy and panache. His manager at Napoli, Luciano Spalletti, describes him as “such a great striker” and “the complete package.” In January this year a well-known Belgium striker, Romelu Lukaku, described Osimhen as “the best striker.”

Every Nigerian footballer looks forward to a day that scouts will select him for trials in clubs abroad. When that day comes the footballer knows that his prayers have been answered. That is because playing in the Nigerian league is the equivalent of sentencing yourself to a life of misery. The pitches are bad and poorly maintained; the coaching is third rate; the salary is poor and irregularly paid; the fans are generally unruly and unforgiving. The general atmosphere for playing league football is discouraging. That is why some Nigerians prefer to switch allegiance from Nigeria to other countries, not only in athletics but also in football.

The footballers who have switched allegiance include: Samuel Adekugbe and Ike Ugbo (Canada), Manuel Akanji, Noah Okafor (Switzerland), Angelo Ogbonna (Italy), Bukayo Saka, Dele Alli, Gabriel Agbonlahor (England), Karim Adeyemi, Sydney Sam, Jamal Musiala (Germany) etc. These players feel that even under the worst conditions abroad including racism they are still better off than playing in the Nigerian league.

When people call on Super Eagles coaches to pick players from the Nigerian league for the Super Eagles I always chuckle because that is a tall order. There is no player in the Nigerian league that would not choose to play for any of the leagues outside Africa if he had the opportunity. The difference between our league and foreign leagues is gargantuan in every respect. That is why the coaches never ever seem to see useable players from the Nigerian league that are draftable into the Super Eagles except a couple of goal keepers.

Even in this position the coaches still seem to prefer goalkeepers that play abroad because of the robustness of the play abroad and the tough training that they are given. If the governing authorities of our football want players in our league to form part of the Super Eagles team they must improve our league so as to attract foreign coaches and players. They must make the league attractive in all ramifications.

However, we must commend the former coach of the Super Eagles, Gernot Rohr, who succeeded in attracting some Nigerian players born abroad into the Super Eagles. Some of them are Troost Ekong and Balogun who man our defence. They have been nicknamed “Oyibo wall.”

We must do much more than employing foreign coaches for our Super Eagles and Super Falcons. Most of the time these foreign coaches live abroad and only come here as tourists when home matches are to be played. No Nigerian-born coach will do that. But this does not mean that we should not employ foreign coaches. We should employ them when we have the resources to do so. It is a national disgrace when coaches complain that their salaries have not been paid for months.

Osimhen who propelled his team, Napoli to the pinnacle of Italian football has now become a global citizen whose signature is worth millions of dollars. He got there because of his unwavering determination, his robust dedication to duty, his indomitable presence on the pitch, his clinical way of getting the job done. It is these qualities that have catapulted him from zero to hero today.

Young man, stay there.