In Naples, football is more than a sport. This southern city, famous for its natural beauties and rich history, is a place where men who become heroes are immortalized. They are worshipped.
Take, for instance, the reverential adoration inspired by the late Diego Maradona after leading I Partenopei to their first two Scudetti, in 1987 and 1990—establishing Napoli as a force to be reckoned with in Italy, in a league the wealthier northern clubs have a history of dominating.
This city of mostly working-class people quickly embraced a Maradona who himself came from humble beginnings, growing up in Villa Fiorito, an overcrowded shantytown in the Buenos Aires suburbs.
Victor Osimhen, like Maradona, is an underdog from a rough background, so perhaps the Napoli part of his story was always destined. But there was much adversity to overcome before, and even after, he got there.
Osimhen grew up in extreme poverty in Olusosun, an impoverished neighborhood near the Ojota area of Lagos State in southwestern Nigeria. Olusosun is synonymous with the infamous dumpsite that sprawls beside it, which is one of Africa’s largest. There, kids are not permitted to dream big or to dream at all. In Osimhen’s words, “this is not a place that offers you promises.”
He lost his mother when he was a little child. Things worsened when his now-deceased father lost his job shortly after. The boy sold bottles of water on the highways and did other menial jobs to support his family. In the midst of this adversity and struggle for survival, he found solace in the beautiful game. After school, he would go with his older brother, Andrew to play football.
His undeniable talents were soon noticed by scouts in the local area, and he subsequently joined Ultimate Strikers Academy, where he refined his skillset. In 2014, he participated in the Nigerian national U-17 open screening in Abuja. Being selected to join Emmanuel Amunike’s squad would mark a turning point in his young life.
Osimhen scored four goals in the 2015 African U-17 Championship in Niger between February and March to help Nigeria qualify to that year’s U-17 World Cup in Chile, where he would shoot to real prominence.
The sixteen-year-old striker announced himself on the world stage in Nigeria’s tournament opener against the United States, scoring the second goal in a 2-0 victory. He scored two goals in the next game, a 5-1 demolition of hosts Chile, then one in a 2-1 loss to Croatia. Despite the loss, Nigeria won Group A.
Osimhen kept up his impressive run of goals in the knockout rounds, scoring a hat-trick in Nigeria’s 6-0 Round of 16 victory over Australia, and sent the Golden Eaglets on to a quarterfinal showdown with Brazil.
The Brazilians threatened early on in the quarterfinal match, but they were left to rue their missed opportunities when Osimhen rose highest to meet a cross from Lazarus John in the 29th minute, setting the tone for Nigeria on their way to a 3-0 win.
Within a few seconds of opening the scoring, he set up Kingsley Michael with an over-the-head pass to double Nigeria’s lead, and Udochukwu Anumudu’s shot, misjudged by the Brazilian goalkeeper, gave Nigeria a commanding 3-0 advantage in the space of five minutes in the first half.
Nigeria defeated Mexico 4-2 in the semi-finals, overcoming their most difficult obstacle yet. Osimhen scored the game’s final goal in the 83rd minute—his ninth of the tournament—converting from the spot to calm Nigerians’ nerves and set up an all-African final against Mali.
The stage was set at Estadio Sausalito, with over 15,000 in attendance and millions more watching around the world. After a tense opening 45 minutes in which both teams had minimal scoring chances, it was Osimhen who, in the 56th minute, broke the deadlock with a well-placed first-time finish off a Chinedu Madueke cutback inside the area. He became the first player to score in every stage of the tournament and set a new record for goals with 10.
Nigeria defeated the Malians 2-0 courtesy of a second goal from Funso Bamgboye to defend a title they’d won two years before. Osimhen took home the tournament’s Golden Boot and Silver Ball prizes—his 10 goals in seven matches (he scored in every game from the first group stage match to the final) is the most by any player in a single U-17 World Cup tournament.
On the back of his exploits in Chile, Osimhen signed with Wolfsburg in January 2017, a few days after his 18th birthday. Fitness issues and a lack of trust from the coaches meant that he would struggle to build any kind of momentum at his new club. In 18 months, he made just 16 appearances for them, failing to find the target even once. There were concerns that he could become the latest in a long list of failed Nigerian wonderkids.
Macauley Chrisantus. Rabiu Ibrahim. Stanley Okoro. Sani Emmanuel. The list could go on. A list Nigerian fans would be all too familiar with. A list of wonderkids who exploded onto the scene with eye-catching performances in youth tournaments, but then, for whatever reason, failed to live up to their billing and vanished into obscurity without a trace.
At the time of his struggles at Wolfsburg, it appeared that Osimhen too was headed in that dreaded direction. He has never been a stranger to adversity, though, coming out the other side of a childhood that might have broken the resolve of even the most resilient person. It is perhaps the most plausible explanation for the never-say-die attitude he demonstrates every time he takes to the field. The mindset that kept him going through all of his troubles in Germany.
So, in search of more playing time, Osimhen made the decision to leave Wolfsburg before the start of the 2018/19 season. His decision paid off, but not without a few setbacks, which the player would have been accustomed to, you’d think!
Trials with Belgian clubs Zulte Waregem and Club Brugge ended in failure for a good deal of reasons. Then, a few days before the closure of the European transfer window, as fate would have it, Club Brugge signed Kaveh Rezaei from league rivals Charleroi after passing up the chance to sign Osimhen. This led Charleroi to take a gamble on the Nigerian. The player made the move to southern Belgium intent on proving his worth.
He did exactly that.
On September 22, 2018, Osimhen scored his first goal as a professional in his third game for Charleroi against Beveren with an audacious backheel flick that went in through the legs of the Beveren goalkeeper. It was a strike that demonstrated his immense talent and provided an early glimpse of what was to come.
As the season progressed, he grew in confidence and form, exhibiting signs of his 2015 World Cup self: physical strength, speed, ruthlessness in front of goal, and a fierce desire to compete, as though he had something to prove. Which, of course, he did.
“It was tough in Germany because of the high expectations; some people started doubting me and also pushed me to start doubting myself as well,” Osimhen said after a few months in Charleroi. “The football in Belgium has helped. I also have a wonderful group of players around me and the coaching crew has been great with me.
“As a young player, you hear people comparing you to other stars who emerged from the Under-17 World Cup and never fulfilled their potential. But now at Charleroi I have comfortably found my happiness again, and I thank everyone in Belgium and at Wolfsburg for the opportunity and support.”
Charleroi’s head coach Felice Mazzu, who was taken aback by the player’s quick adaptation, stated, “Reaching a decision to sign him wasn’t easy. So many things came up but because we have an idea of how good he can be, it was easy to convince the club to take a gamble on him.
“He is 19 and when we signed him, the plan was to slowly integrate him into the club and our style of play. He is way better than we thought, to be honest.”
Osimhen scored 20 goals in his breakout season. It became apparent that Charleroi had a real diamond on their hands, and there was newfound hope for the youngster. The Zebras acted quickly to exercise their option to sign him permanently at the end of the season, paying up to €3.5m in the 2019 summer transfer window. He wouldn’t stay there for another season, however, as Lille forked out €12m for his signature in that same window.
In his only season with the Ligue 1 club, he scored 18 goals and had 6 assists in 38 games in all competitions during a French football season cut short due to COVID-19. His fine displays were rewarded with Lille’s Player of the Season and the Prix Marc-Vivien Foé awards, and more interest from bigger clubs. The Napoli project would convince him the most, with the club paying a club-record fee in excess of €70 million to finalise a deal.
Victor Osimhen’s first two years in Italy were marred by injuries, one of which was a gruesome facial injury he sustained in a game against Inter in November 2021 that nearly cost him his sight, as revealed by the surgeon who operated on him. He returned after two months wearing a protective mask, which he has continued to wear since then. A mask that has become emblematic of the player.
Even as he has put aside his injury troubles this season to solidify his status as a favorite among Neapolitans and among the best in the world in his position, Osimhen has simultaneously built a formidable partnership with Khvicha Kvaratskhelia to mark a positive period at the club. A period that has yielded the club its third Scudetto, only the first since the glorious era of Maradona in the mid 80s to early 90s.
The player, almost impossible to stop for most Serie A opposition, has led the way in grand fashion for Luciano Spalletti’s side with 23 league goals. So it was only fitting that his goal against Udinese earlier this month confirmed Napoli as champions of Italy for the first time in more than three decades.
Along the way, another record stands testament to how far Osimhen has come since his Wolfsburg days. The legendary George Weah, netted 46 times in the league for AC Milan in his career. With his penalty in a 1-0 win over Fiorentina on May 7, 2023 Osimhen broke a record that had stood since 1999, surpassing the only African player to win the Ballon d’Or to become the greatest African scorer in the history of Serie A.
But with Victor, it’s more than just the goals he scores that makes him special. He’s an unstoppable force of nature. His mere presence causes defenders to tremble. You have to watch him live to get a complete understanding of what he contributes to his team. Neapolitans adore him for the unquantifiable passion with which he plays every time he steps out onto the field. The drive that makes the announcer inside the Diego Armando Maradona Stadium yell out his forename “Victor” on matchdays, to which thousands of fans in attendance duly respond in harmony, shouting “Osimhen” at the top of their voices.
Maradona gave the people of Napoli hope and joy, and they will never forget it. Murals of him can be found throughout the city. There is even a shrine dedicated to him there. Victor Osimhen has brought the people great joy, just like El Pibe de Oro did. His adoration and memory will endure.