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Friday, June 14, 2024

Osimhen: From Lagos street hawker to Serie A goal king


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Nigerian striker Victor Osimhen’s goals fired Napoli to their third Serie A triumph after 33 years. Here, ‘TANA AIYEJINA takes a look at the grass-to-grace story of the Scudetto winner

In Naples, Italy, Victor Osimhen is adored, hero-worshipped and loved.

Kids line up, singing the praises of the Napoli striker on the streets of the port city, home of the latest Serie A champions.

During the Naples carnival in February, the kids embodied the Nigerian’s looks, ‘blacking up’ their skins and dressing like him, wearing his trademark mask, which he wears since sustaining a facial injury in 2021.

His mask is used to beautify cakes in the city and fans queue up to buy them in their numbers outside Napoli’s home ground, the Diego Armando Maradona stadium.

A song in his honour by Italian musician Alex Garini, celebrating his goal-scoring heroics, went viral three months ago.

The world’s best football experts have hailed him as one of the best strikers — alongside Erling Haaland, the Manchester City forward — in modern football.

All the big clubs in Europe want him in their ranks.

Truly, Osimhen has been in blistering form this season, banging in the goals for Napoli, 26 overall — 22 in 27 Serie A games and four in the Champions League — which has defined Napoli’s season.

He is not just a scorer, he is a hard worker who plays for the team, defending deep and providing assists for his teammates — four so far — and preferring other players to handle penalty duties and also score goals, which has endeared him to the fans.

And in typical fashion, he pulls off his mask to celebrate and identify with the fanatical Napoli ultras.

His partnership with Georgian forward Kvicha Kvaratskhelia has had a devastating effect on defences, with both strikers having a combined 40 goals in Serie A and the Champions League, where Napoli crashed out in the semi-finals to local rivals AC Milan.

On Thursday, Osimhen’s equaliser against Udinese in a 1-1 stalemate handed Napoli their first Scudetto after a 33-year wait to spark up rapturous celebrations in Italy, with one fan reported dead and “a few others” injured.

The Neapolitan had never had it so good, since the era of the great Argentine, Diego Maradona, who led them to their only previous triumphs in 1987 and 1990.

Osimhen, the Lagos boy, who once lived close to a rubbish dump and chased vehicles selling sachet water, popularly known as ‘pure water’ to earn a living, had suddenly transformed into a hero on foreign land.

Growing up, Osimhen’s family could only afford one of the many makeshift houses — declared illegal by the Lagos State Government — around the popular Olusosun rubbish dump, noted for its emission of thick smoke, foul smell and routine fire outbreaks.

The 100-acre Olusosun landfill, which reportedly receives up to 10,000 tons of rubbish each day, is regarded as one of the largest dump sites in Africa. And it’s also a hideout for criminals, who conceal dangerous weapons and hard drugs inside the massive garbage.

At a young age, Osimhen, the last child of seven siblings, lost his mother, while his father lost his job, leaving him and his siblings in the dark world of uncertainty.

Insecurity, poverty and the perennial fear of eviction by the Lagos State Government starred his family in the face.

Just like his never-say-die attitude on the pitch, he didn’t give up.

He sold sachet water on the ever-busy Lagos roads but kept an eye on football, playing the game on streets in his neighbourhood, as well as joining the youth side Ultimate Strikers Academy.

“I come from a place where so many dreams have died but I’m the kind of person who doesn’t give up irrespective of my situation. So, I was forced to go out and get myself a life,” Osimhen said.

“In Lagos, they sell water, which is the easiest but the hardest because you have to run and give somebody the water and collect money.”

Money did not come from playing football, but it didn’t matter. He combined it with his ‘business’ of selling sachet water.

And chasing vehicles barefoot or in slippers helped the lad when he eventually got the breakthrough in life.

That was when he caught the attention of the country’s then U-17 coach Emmanuel Amuneke and scouts and was selected for the 2015 U-17 World Cup in Chile.

When he got to the FIFA Goal Project pitch in Abuja, where the U-17 officials were screening players, Osimhen was dazed by the huge crowd of players in camp.

“It was like two million players!,” he said.

He was given a 15-minute try-out by the coach and he scored two goals.

However, the skinny youngster thought he fell short of expectations, with the only thought on his mind the 12 hours by road trip back to Lagos.

“He (Amuneke) chased everyone out. I told the person who brought me, ‘I came to Abuja to do my bit but I wasn’t picked, I think we should go back to Lagos.’

“But the team doctor told Amuneke, ‘I think you should try the guy on the green.’ That’s me, they didn’t know my name. When he (Amuneke) called me, he said, ‘don’t you eat, why are you like this?’

“He told me to sit down and I was happy. Then I played against the main team in camp and I was fighting really hard, giving them problems.

“After the screening, the coach told some players to go but asked me to come back the following day. And he fell in love with me. The final day I was picked.”

It was a fairytale ride afterwards, as he led the Golden Eaglets to a record fifth U-17 World Cup triumph, scoring 10 goals, the highest ever at the tournament, and scooping the Golden Boot and Silver Ball awards in the process.

He was also named the 2015 CAF Young Player of The Year.

A high-profile three-and-a-half-year move to Bundesliga side Wolfsburg followed.

However, the youngster’s career witnessed a reversal of fortunes thereafter.

He was sidelined by injuries, making just 12 Bundesliga appearances and scoring no goal, after he had three surgeries on his right knee and one on his shoulder.

While recuperating in Nigeria, he was diagnosed with malaria and was quarantined from the Wolfsburg squad for three weeks on return to Germany.

Belgian clubs Zulte Waregem and Club Brugge, who had shown interest in the striker, both turned him down when it looked certain he would pen a deal with either of them after trials.

Osimhen was broken but didn’t give up.

“Growing up in a family when it was hard to get three square meals in a day, I can say that I have seen it all in life; the hardest part was when I was at Wolfsburg. It was really a tough period for me and at some point, I started doubting my abilities,” Osimhen said.

But an amazing career revival at another Belgian side Sporting Charleroi, where he scored 20 goals in 36 games while on loan in the 2018/19 season, again set him on the path to the top.

The following season, the Nigerian joined Lille for €12m and scored 18 goals with six assists in 38 games across all competitions. He was voted the club’s Player of The Year and also scooped the Marc-Vivien Foe prize for the best African player in Ligue 1 before Italian giants Napoli grabbed him from the French club in the 2020/21 season for €70m — which could potentially rise to €80m with add-ons — making him the most expensive African transfer till date.

In his first season, he managed 10 goals in all competitions amid a shoulder injury, suspensions and coronavirus-related issues.

Last season, he scored 14 goals in Serie A and 18 in all competitions.

However, the 2022/23 season is a career-defining one for Osimhen.

After a late Salernitana equaliser prevented Napoli from winning the title penultimate Sunday, it seemed their fans would have to wait for another game to be crowned champions after Sandi Lovric handed Udinese the opener on 13 minutes at the Dacia Arena last Thursday.

But within seven minutes of the restart, Osimhen scored the all-important goal that had taken 33 years to come, calmly guiding the ball home and sparking scenes of pandemonium among the 11,000 travelling supporters and a packed Stadio Diego Armando Maradona, who were watching history being made on big screens back in Naples.

The draw took Napoli to 80 points for the season, putting an unassailable 16-point gap between them and second-place Lazio with five games left.

Osimhen and his teammates’ wild celebrations with the fans told the entire story of the over three decades of wait for the coveted title.

“I scored the Scudetto goal,” Osimhen said.

“It’s true, but anyone else could have scored it. I feel like a leader and I never give up.

“I’m thrilled with this. I’m happy for me, for the team and for the fans. I can’t wait to embrace our fans, even though I already felt the warmth of the people. I’m happy for all the Neapolitans.”

On a personal note, he entered the history books as the third Nigerian to win the Scudetto after Obafemi Martins and Victor Nsofor, who both won it with Inter Milan in 2006 and 2009 respectively.

His goal against Udinese, his 22nd, also saw him overtake Cameroonian Samuel Eto’o as the African with the most goals in a single Serie A season.

He also equalled Ballon d’Or winner George Weah for the most goals scored by an African in Serie A history with 46 goals.

Before the title win, Osimhen’s 33rd-minute strike in Napoli’s 2-0 win over Sassuolo in Serie A in February was his 100th senior career goal in 197 games.

That is better than Lionel Messi, who needed 210 games to score 100 goals, and Cristiano Ronaldo, whose 100th career goal came in his 301st career game.

No doubt, Osimhen, now valued at €100m (N50.7bn), has had a chequered football career.

But today, the boy who dropped out of Oregun Secondary School, Lagos to chase his dream, against his father’s wish of studying Medicine, is the major character in world football’s latest Cinderella story.