Victor Osimhen: The story of grace in moments of grim

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By Ken Ugbechie

Now, the world knows his name. Victor James Osimhen. Esan boy. Edo-born. A Nigerian. Africa’s ambassador in Europe. King of Naples, Italy’s third largest city; birthplace of pizza. Now, in Italy, when a hundred people scream Victor, a thousand tongues would bellow O-s-i-m-h-e-n.

Now, the earth bears testimony that out of Africa, has risen a unicorn, an icon, a soccer whizz. And he has just been crowned African Footballer of the Year 2023, the most coveted individual crown on the continent for footballers. He shared the podium with Asisat Oshoala, the Lagos girl who became one of Barcelona’s best female strikers. Oshola won the female diadem as Africa’s best female footballer. The first time a Nigerian male and female monopolized the most prized individual awards in Africa football: History.

Standing at 1.85 metres, lanky and leggy, Osimhen has become the best and most effective image burnishing tool for Nigeria. He won the Italian league (Scudetto) for Napoli football club. That’s not novel. The club had won it twice in the past. But it was a distant past. A good 33 years ago when an Argentine, Diego Armando Maradona, helped the club to win it. For that feat, Maradona became a deity in Naples. After pizza, Maradona comes next. He was idolized, immortalized. A god, he became. A monument he morphed into.

Step forth: Osimhen. Lagos street hawker; a near-destitute, almost homeless at infancy. Shorn of the pleasure of childhood; burdened by the brunt of poverty. A young lad abused, despised. Abused by poverty, by the elements, by the perils of uncertainty. Almost stigmatised on account of his skinny, gaunt gait. Osimhen knew poverty. He wore it like a coat of many colours. Poverty has many grades, different shades. Osimhen’s poverty quotient in his teenage years was of the Alpha grade. Unmitigatedly naked poverty. Even the poor called him poor.

The stimulus from his home was toxic. Typical of many, when the home is combusting with poverty and pain, you embrace the streets. No street guarantees you the good life. Osimhen knew it but had no choice. Better to rock the streets in hope than to rest at home in despair. Street does not guarantee success, but it guarantees opportunities. Osimhen found opportunity in the street. An Under-17 football trial in Abuja was all he needed. Grace and mercy enguarded his effort. He did not travel to Abuja from Lagos by air. He could not afford it. An excruciating 12-hour road trip, he made.

Success has three major components. Faith. Work. Hope. Osimhen had all. At the under-17 screening in Abuja in 2014, he gave his best. He worked his socks off for 15 minutes. That was enough for Providence to engrace his effort with success. At age 16, fate thrust him into the Under-17 team. He went ahead to win the 2015 FIFA U-17 World Cup; 2015 FIFA U-17 Golden Boot (Highest Goal Scorer) and 2015 FIFA Silver Shoe Award (Second Best Player). An unknown Osimhen of unknown parentage drew global attention to himself and to his country.

Nine years after that destiny-defining outing in Abuja, Osimhen has become a global brand. Indeed, Nigeria’s best and most effective PR tool at the moment. Before now Italian authorities gave Nigerians a short shrift. Nigerians were hounded and hunted. Prostitution, drug and sundry crimes were easily ascribed to Nigerians. Any Nigerian in Italy would tell you that the indecent badge of criminality always affixed on Nigerians is fast wearing out. In Naples, next to pizza is Osimhen. He now shares the heart of the average Neapolitan with Maradona. Italian police and the anti-narcotics agency are beginning to rethink their attitude towards Nigerians. Not all Nigerians in Italy are low-life hookers and hoboes. Osimhen has birthed a new order. He has brought fame and friends to Nigerians in Italy. And he’s just 24 years old.

Osimhen did not just win the Scudetto for Napoli, he shattered records. He broke the ceiling. Bullish in confidence and with confidence, he put Nigeria on the world map as the hottest striker in current form in Italy. Osimhen is now the all-time African goal scorer in a single Serie A season.

He has shattered the record once held by Cameroonian Samuel Eto’o for the most goals scored by an African player in a single Serie A season with 22 goals. While Osimhen achieved the feat with only 27 matches,  it took 35 matches for Eto’o to set the record. He equalled George Weah’s record for the Highest African Goal scorer in Serie A with 46 goals.

He’s now the second Nigerian ever to win the Scudetto after Obafemi Martins first achieved the feat in the 2005/06 season with Inter Milan. While Osimhen has become the poster boy for Nigeria, at least in the hearts of Neapolitans, he also reminds us of the gross institutional failings in Nigeria. Osimhen did not play in the Under-17 team in 2015 alone. Some of his teammates could not make it to Europe. Some did and have been the better for their stroke of good fortune. Now, compare the career path of those who made it to Europe with that of those stuck in Nigerian league. It’s like placing clay side by side with diamond. Those playing at home are not only poorly remunerated, they are irregularly remunerated. Some are owed salaries, allowances and sign-on fees. They toil under the cruellest soccer ecosystem. Poor training facilities, poor medical services, zero insurance despite the high risks associated with their trade.

Not so for Osimhen and the horde of Nigerians playing football in Europe, the Mecca of football. Osimhen’s life is insured by his club. His teammates from other European countries have their lives not only insured by their club but also by their respective countries. Osimhen’s allegiance is to Nigeria, his fatherland. Many of his compatriots deliberately pledged their allegiance to other countries, mostly European nations. There is a proverb in my place: The albino said when he attended the funeral of his albino colleague and witnessed the disrespect that attended his burial, he knew what awaited him at his own death.

It’s for such shoddy treatment by Nigerian authorities that many footballers of Nigerian parentage had long pledged their allegiance to other countries. It’s a strong contingent of good and exceptionally gifted players. Roll call: Bukayo Saka, Ross Barkley, Dele Alli, Gabriel Agbonlahor (all played/play for England); Karim Adeyemi, Sydney Sam, Jamal Musiala (Germany); Manuel Akanji, Noah Okafor (Switzerland); David Alaba (Austria); Samuel Adekugbe, Ike Ugbo (Canada); Angelo Ogbonna (Italy), among others. These players, still playing or retired, are living well. Their clubs and countries often help to shape their career path upon retirement.

Not so for Nigeria-based players who retire from active football. They played in poverty, and when they retire, their poverty is multiplied. Such insensitivity to citizens is the chief reason some sportsmen and women of Nigerian parentage pledge their allegiance anywhere but Nigeria. They are not unpatriotic. Never! Those who run Nigeria football should profile Osimhen and compare his status with the networth of his mates still stuck in Nigeria. That should give them a clear idea of the colossal damage they have done to Nigeria football. There are many Osimhen stranded in Nigeria. Only a radically transformed Nigeria Football Federation will fish them out and give them the requisite wind to sail. Nigeria football managers need to go back to school lest they keep bringing odium and ridicule to over 200 million Nigerians.

Meantime, let’s toast to a new King of African football; King of Naples. Let’s toast to the story of grace, the story of time and chance, the story of what God cannot do does not exist. Truly and surely, only God can lift a man out of the miry clay and set him upon a rock, upon the summit of a career to crest fame and wear honour like a cassock. Let’s drink to Osimhen, the new King of African football.


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