There aren’t many footballers who are privileged to be mentioned in the same breath as Diego Armando Maradona. And of the rare few who fit into that bracket of unusual greatness, you’re unlikely to include a lanky forward who hardly possesses the kind of technical quality the late Argentine had in such jaw-dropping abundance.
Yet that hasn’t stopped the good people of Naples, the core fanbase of Serie A side Napoli, from elevating Nigerian striker Victor Osimhen to Maradona-esque heights of esteem. The 24-year-old has only been at the club three seasons, but his legacy is already secure after the starring role he has played in fetching Napoli a first Serie A title since Maradona inspired them to only their second in 1990.
Napoli winning the Scudetto has been as much the consequence of the collective effort of the entire squad as it has been down to the tactical brilliance and man-management expertise of trainer Luciano Spalletti, who has now won all major domestic silverware on the peninsula. And even if you seek individual performers to single out for praise, there are other legitimate candidates, like six-foot-three defensive barricade Kim Min-jae and dazzling winger Khvicha Kvaratskhelia.
But despite being surrounded by such undeniable class, Osimhen still shines through as, arguably, the crown jewel of this triumphant group. True, it’s Kvaratskhelia that has drawn the most obvious Maradona comparisons, chiefly for his ability to impress on the ball, taking on opponents with boldness and beating them with finesse. Osimhen’s role as the ultimate difference-maker, though, sets him apart as the best fit for the Maradona mould.
For a considerable part of the season, Napoli had been beyond the reach of their pursuers, and, by the end of March, they could smell the inevitability of becoming the fourth different champion of Serie A in as many seasons; a 4-0 thumping of Torino on the road just before the season’s last international break took them within touching distance of glory.
The end of that break and resumption of club football found Napoli struggling for consistency of form, however. In their first game back, Napoli were battered at home by Milan, the league champions they sought to dethrone, going on to win only once in all competitions until the final week of April.
That patchy run coincided with Osimhen’s absence due to injury, Napoli’s struggles appearing to underscore his value to the team. If that point didn’t sink in enough, it was driven home even further by Osimhen’s crucial contribution in the game away to Udinese that saw Napoli finally crowned, four days after plucky Salernitana had denied them the infinitely greater delight of sealing the deal on home turf before a packed, partisan Stadio Diego Armando Maradona.
The hosts’ first-half lead, taken after only 13 minutes, suggested this was going to prove another opportunity missed to do the needful with a good few games to spare, until Osimhen snatched the script and rewrote its ending in Napoli’s favour. A 51st-minute corner-kick swung in by teammate Eljif Elmas connected with a number of Napoli players, before reaching Kvaratskhelia on the edge of the Udinese box.
The Georgian, from there, struck fiercely, but his effort was repelled by goalkeeper Marco Silvestri. The Italian, however, only punched the ball as far as Napoli’s most dangerous attacker this season, Osimhen, who needed no more than one touch to find the target, side-footing past Silvestri. The goal wasn’t enough to win Spalletti’s side the game, but it won them something far more valuable: the title.
As he flew off to celebrate in front of the supporters who had come along for the trip — many, many more had assembled at the Maradona that evening observing proceedings from afar, though with no less fervour — Osimhen tore off the mask that has quickly made the transition from protection gear (after the brutal facial fracture he suffered earlier this season) to a heroic, Zorro-ic accessory that has caught on well with the Napoli faithful.
Hair topped with peroxide, his emotions all over the place, the reasonably ecstatic Osimhen revelled in having delivered the decisive blow, at this landmark point in the club’s history that would forever define the superstar he has now become.
Osimhen was the one who had stopped this wait from continuing another day longer than the 33 years Napoli fans had already had to endure. It was, as they say about sportsmen these days, his I’m Him moment.
“I’m the only one!” screamed the T-shirt Osimhen, as he departed Nigeria for Germany in the company of his father in January 2016, wore.
Regardless of the extent of consciousness that fresh-faced Osimhen — who’d turned 17 only a month prior — invested in his choice of apparel for that life-changing trip, it felt, even if only with the benefit of hindsight, like an extremely self-confident statement for one so young to make.
Or maybe it wasn’t.
A member of Nigeria’s Golden Eaglets, Osimhen had won the Fifa U-17 World Cup the previous year, also grabbing the Golden Boot for himself at the finals in Chile as he did at the African championships just before — securing both for the princely sum of 14 goals.
Wolfsburg, among other elite European sides, had their interest piqued by Osimhen’s exploits, and the Bundesliga side acted quickly to beat the competition. Osimhen was invited over to commit to a pre-contract agreement, ahead of a transfer a year later, occasioning the trip mentioned just a few paragraphs ago.
But he didn’t enjoy quite the start to life in Europe he’d dreamt of. Osimhen arrived injured, and joined a Wolfsburg side that battled relegation throughout his time there. A loan move to Belgium was on the cards in summer of 2018, but Osimhen, bogged down by a bout of malaria, was rejected by Zulte Waregem and Club Brugge after he trialled with them.
Another Belgian side, Charleroi, were willing to take a chance on Osimhen, however, and it was there he opened his scoring account as a professional footballer, with a neat backheel against Waasland-Beveren in September 2022.
Just over five years later, in February 2023, Osimhen hit triple figures in goals — for club and country — bringing up his 100th in a league game for Napoli against Sassuolo and reaching that milestone faster than some of the elite scorers of our/all time, the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, Robert Lewandowski and Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
He really has come a long way, hasn’t he?
Like Maradona, Osimhen has beaten the odds thrown his way by a difficult childhood (he was raised in a slum and hawked goods for a living), a rough introduction to European football, rejection, some pretty serious injuries (two to his shoulder, one to the face), and the heaviest price Napoli have ever paid for a player (the fee in excess of €70 million that ended his stellar one-season stay with French outfit Lille) to get here.
Even in a season that has seen Nigerian forwards light up European football, from Belgium (Gift Orban) and France (Terem Moffi) to Spain (Samuel Chukwueze) and England’s Championship (Chuba Akpom), it’s Serie A leading scorer Osimhen who truly stands out. And it isn’t just his contemporaries that Osimhen is outdoing; a couple of all-time greats have been knocked off their perches, too.
With his goal against Udinese, Osimhen became the African with the most goals in a Serie A season, eclipsing Cameroonian Samuel Eto’o Fils (21). Days later, his winner at home to Fiorentina took Osimhen past another legend, George Weah, whose 46 goals had stood for over two decades as the highest total of any African in the league’s history.
It’s worth mentioning that Eto’o and Weah are two of just three African players to finish on the podium for Fifa’s highest individual honour, and the latter, on the books of AC Milan in 1995, is the only one from continent to have actually won it (along with the Ballon d’Or). Weah, now president of his country, Liberia, has applauded Osimhen’s feat in the nicest way possible, also spurring the younger man on to even greater accomplishments.
Osimhen’s immediate target, with personal business in Serie A this season uncompleted, would be the Capocannoniere prize, awarded to the player who finishes the campaign with the most goals. He is presently four clear of his closest challenger, Inter Milan’s Lautaro Martinez, and has four games with which to guard that position towards a successful end.
While he almost certainly won’t match Gonzalo Higuain’s single-season tally of 36 Serie A goals (38 in all competitions, jointly-held with Edinson Cavani) for Napoli, Osimhen’s own goals have been scored to more spectacular effect, as the scenes of the past week have shown, also powering the club to its farthest-ever in the Uefa Champions League — the quarter-finals, and nearly beyond — this term.
And, oh, Napoli fans don’t have to worry about Osimhen going anywhere anytime soon — unlike Higuain in the aftermath of his own record-breaking season in Napoli azure — if the words of Aurelio De Laurentiis, the club’s president, are anything to go by.
“I will not sell Victor Osimhen this summer — no way!” the film producer told Rai Sport show ‘Cinque Minuti’ last week.
If you know De Laurentiis, you know he drives a hard bargain even when he’s willing to let a player go, never mind when he isn’t; rumour has it, in fact, that a new contract is being tabled, just so there are no doubts about just how much he wants to screen his prized asset off from the prying eyes of Europe’s heavyweights.
And that’s because De Laurentiis and the whole of Naples knows Osimhen is whoever he (or his T-shirt, wherever it is now) says he is: ‘the only one’.
Enn Y. Frimpong — Ink & Kicks