Sports

From cement carrier to African player of the year – Victor Osimhen and his inspiring story

The Nigerian striker overcame adversity as a young boy to become the star footballer he is today on the cusp of winning the Italian title


Editor’s note: On December 11, Victor Osimhen was named African Player of the Year at the CAF Awards in Marrakesh, Morocco. This article has been republished to commemorate the achievements of the Nigerian striker.


On the last day of January this year, I took a 60 euros taxi from my hotel in the centre of Naples to a village 41km away from the city. It was a sunny morning, far warmer than the Berlin I left behind two days before.

I wanted to meet Victor Osimhen, the Nigerian superstar who had given hope to this southern Italian city. I just missed him after the 2-1 victory against AS Roma the night before, I spent too long in the press conference, so he had driven out of the stadium by the time I arrived at the players’ entrance, alongside Italian journalist Vincenzo Credendino, who had become my guide during that first visit.

But Nigerian journalist Oma Akatugba had arranged for me to meet Victor at the team’s training ground in this little village of Castel Volturno, far from the prying eyes of the fanatical supporters of the club. This facility on a golf course is where the team manages to maintain its sanity and draw plans for its return to Italian dominance.

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Napoli’s Victor Osimhen. Photo by Lolade Adewuyi/Soccernet Media

While Victor knew I was coming, the club was not informed, so I waited in front of the Konami Training Center until the players started to emerge. One by one, they drove out in their fancy vehicles. Amir Rhamani, Kvara Kvaratskhelia, Kim Min Jae, and the rest. I waited in the shade as the sun burned down.

When Victor Osimhen came out of the parking lot in his Mercedes G-Wagon, I didn’t know it was him until he stopped and wound down. “Hello bros, how are you doing?,” he said.

I was happy to see him and I quickly opened the passenger door and jumped into the vehicle, glad to escape the searing Campanian heat. I thought Victor would drive back to the city and that we would be able to talk on the way. But like many of the other players, he told me that he lived just a few minutes away from the training centre. So he parked the vehicle and we had a conversation.

A shared history

While it was the first time we were meeting pysically, our paths had crossed a long time before. After Victor scored a record 10 goals to lead Nigeria to their fifth FIFA U17 World Cup title in 2015, I did an exclusive interview with him while I was chief editor of Goal.com Nigeria. Only that it was through an intermediary as his agents kept him away from contact with potential agents who were all seeking his signature at the time. As he was under instruction not to speak with strangers, I sent my questions through his trusted friend of his who came back with answers.

Victor remembered very well. It was the interview where he spoke about his admiration for his all-time idol Didier Drogba. Things came full circle for us, when, the day before I asked Jose Mourinho if Victor was now at the same level as the Drogba he coached at Chelsea. Victor was happy to know that I was the one who asked the question.

I was also the one who broke the news of his departure to Wolfsburg in 2016. My trusted contact had sent me a picture of Victor and his now late father about to board the flight to Germany at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport in Lagos. It was the beginning of his professional career and it left scars and injuries, loss of faith and picking up again through loan moves and final redemption.

But much earlier than that, I am sure I had walked past a young Victor when I worked at TELL magazine at their former office on Kudirat Abiola Way, Ikeja, just metres from the Olusosun neighborhood where Victor grew up. We would go into Olusosun to eat amala during lunch break and I might have walked past him close to the sports viewing centre inside that community.

Victor’s family was poor and he had to pitch in to help, selling pure water in traffic and doing other menial work. There was a major construction of a block of apartment flats going on opposite TELL magazine at the time, as the neighborhood became gentrified. “I worked on that site,” Victor said to my surprise. “I carried cement for them.”

It was work that earned him a few hundred Naira daily carrying cement on the head to concrete mixing stations. Perhaps, it is why his head is very tough and he has no fear during aerial challenges despite his head injury two years ago.

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Napoli’s Victor Osimhen. Photo by Lolade Adewuyi/Soccernet Media

But here we sat in his Mercedes Benz G Class worth at least 118,256 euros (60million Naira) and talked about how sports had changed our lives. I wouldn’t have ever thought I would visit Naples if not for his feat, a young Nigerian making that city dream of a first title after 33 years.

And before we said our goodbyes, Victor reached into the back seat and brought out his No.9 jersey as a token of appreciation for my trip. It was the best gift ever. We got out of the vehicle and he asked a waiting taxi driver to take pictures as he autographed the jersey.

And then he left, waving, as I wished him the best for the season. I took a taxi back to Naples, paying 50 euros this time because Napoli’s young goalkeeper Hubert Idasiak agreed to share a ride with me. The driver dropped him off at his residence before taking me on the long ride back to Napoli Centro. 110 euros (56,000 Naira) casually spent on taxi by a journalist, I wouldn’t have thought I would ever afford that when I was a senior editor back in TELL years ago.

Naples on the cusp

SSC Napoli would win their third title tonight if they defeat Salernitana and Lazio fail to win at Inter. It has been 33 long years of waiting. The last time they won it, Diego Maradona was the best player in the world. He arrived at Naples as a protest against the bigger clubs that wanted him. He loved their underdog story because he too was an underdog. And he gave them two titles in 1987 and 1990.

Neapolitans love the Argentine and his retired jersey number 10 is revered all over the city. A big mural of him on a wall in the city has become a Mecca for fans who literally pay homage to his memory.

It is this legacy that Victor Osimhen has come into as he leads Napoli back to the top of the Italian game. His 21 goals in the Serie A placed them far beyond all their opponents and on to the title. It is not just the goals he scores but the passion with which he plays for them. He is celebrated in the city like only Maradona, his face mask becoming a totem.

Like Osimhen, Maradona came from a poor home in Buenos Aires to become a demi-god in Naples. There is something about the city embracing poor young men and turning them into saints. Perhaps in a few years, Victor Osimhen will get his own shrine in that city where he has brought joy to many Tifosi through a Scudetto that enables them show the middle finger to their northern Italian cousins.

For me, Osimhen’s story is one of hope, never giving up and always striving to be better. Whether you’re a footballer or a journalist, waking up every morning with plans to become better at what you do is the only way to live life.