FEATURE | Victor Osimhen’s rise to superstardom

Just two years ago Victor Osimhen contracted Malaria. He watched the Super Eagles crash out of the World Cup in the group stage from a hospital bed. Even after recovering his body was weakened to the point where he was a shell of the player that scored 10 goals at the U-17 World Cup. He subsequently failed trials at Belgian sides Club Brugge and Zulte Waregem. Now, he is one of the most expensive African players of all time after moving to Napoli. 

Malaria wasn’t the only thing that Osimhen beat in order to reach stardom. As is the case with most African footballers who made it to the top, Victor Osimhen had to overcome quite a lot. 

Early Days

His story starts in the busy streets of Lagos, Africa’s most populous city. Osimhen was born in a small community called Olusosun. It is home to the largest dumpsite in Lagos. 

Victor spent his days growing playing barefoot on the sand pitches of Lagos. He was determined to become a professional footballer despite pressure from his father to pursue medicine. 

He recalled scavenging dumps in search of football boots. “Sometimes you see, you found yourself with a Nike on the right foot and then you start looking for the other foot. And finally, you find the left foot and it’s a Reebok! My sister patched everything up and it was good. It was survival.” Osimhen told France Football.

His brother sold sports newspapers and his sister sold oranges. Every day after school Victor sold bottled water and sodas, but he had a higher calling. “This is what I wanted, this is what I was born for.” 

Super Eaglets

Despite a drive for success that separated him from others, a bit of luck enabled Osimhen to represent his country. After an impressive performance playing with his youth club Shooting Stars at the National Stadium in Lagos, football agent Shira Ayila (who happened to be watching) approached Victor and invited him to practice with the U-17 National Team. 

Along with four others, Osimhen and Ayila traveled over nine hours from Lagos to Abuja to play. “That was the first time I went outside of Lagos, the first time I was leaving my family, actually.” Osimhen recalled. 

“I was surprised when I came to the field. There were so many players there. My team was the last to play and you had just 15 minutes to show yourself. I scored two goals in the space of that 15 minutes.”After two days of practice the U-17 National Team coach and Nigerian legend Emmanuel Amunike was convinced of his skill. “You could instantly tell when he came to the Under-17 camp that we have a striker capable of scoring goals and helping the team,” said Amuneke. “He had hunger, passion for the game and extra motivation to succeed. It was not a difficult choice to pick him, and we saw that when he delivered.”

Unsurprisingly, he was called up to his nation’s squad for the 2015 FIFA U-17 World Cup that was to be held in Chile. 

His Nigeria side was drawn in Group A with hosts Chile, Croatia and the United States. He scored in the opening game as the Super Eaglets defeated Christian Pulisic’s America 2-0, netted twice in Nigeria’s 5-1 thrashing of Chile, and scored his side’s only goal as they fell to Josip Brekalo’s Croatia. 

Osimhen celebrating a goal against Croatia at the 2015 U-17 World Cup in Chile.

Nigeria were drawn against an Australia side in the Round of 16 that were no match for Osimhen and Nigeria. Victor hit a hat-trick as they dismantled the young Socceroos 6-0. He scored the first goal in their 3-0 win over Brazil before he scored a late penalty to seal Nigeria’s 4-2 win over Mexico to earn a spot in the finals. 

Coming up against fellow Africans Mali, who had only conceded two goals up until the finals, Osimhen scored the decisive goal as his side won 2-0 to lift the trophy in Viña del Mar, Chile. 

If you were counting, Osimhen scored 10 times (in addition to assisting two goals) to win the Golden Boot by a margin of six goals. His teammate Kelechi Nwakali won the Golden Ball as the tournament’s best player while Samuel Chukwueze won the Bronze Boot with three goals. 

European Journey

After the tournament the likes of Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur and AC Milan made approaches for the then 16-year-old, but he held out for a move to VFL Wolfsburg. “My chances of developing are best here. Wolfsburg is the best place for me to jumpstart my career.” Osimhen announced at his unveiling just days after turning 18.  

Wolfsburg paid €3.50m to Ultimate Striker for Osimhen, and as part of the deal they established a partnership with the Nigerian academy to bring more Nigerians to Germany.

Unfortunately for Osimhen and Wolfsburg, the chances never came for him. His reliance on physical prowess that allowed him to bully defenders at the U-17 level was not feasible in the Bundesliga. 

Victor Osimhen in the Bundesliga with VFL Wolfsburg.

His time at Wolfsburg was also marred by injuries, as he missed a large part of his initial season with a meniscus injury. In his sixteen appearances in Germany, he played just 363 minutes averaging 22 minutes per appearance, and of these sixteen appearances, only eight were in his preferred position of centre forward, with the rest coming out wide. 

Success in Belgium

After failing to score in any of his 16 appearances with Wolfsburg, Osimhen looked for a loan move after two disappointing seasons with Wolfsburg. Unfortunately for Osimhen, he contracted Malaria after the season ended. This weakened his body so much that even after recovering he could not play football at his best. He failed trials at Belgian clubs Club Brugge and Zulte Waregem before Charleroi took a chance on the young Nigerian. 

He recalled watching the Super Eagles at the 2018 World Cup from a hospital bed as he fought Malaria. It seems almost certain that he will be Nigeria’s main man for the 2022 World Cup. 

Osimhen at Charleroi

The Belgian league suited Osimhen better. After two years in Europe Osimhen scored his first professional goal against Waasland-Beveren on his full debut – and it was a spectacular goal. 

Excerpt from The Nation: “After receiving a deep-lying cross in the box, the burly striker in a spectacular show of skill and precision, nutmegged an on-rushing defender and within a twinkle of an eye, he scored with a back heel goal much to the delight of over 8,000 spectators at Freethel Stadion with thousands humming on the social media over the well-executed goal.”

After the match he quoted the hit song of R Kelly: “I believe I can fly.” Flying is indeed what he did during his lone season in Belgium, scoring 20 goals in 36 appearances. He described his goal against Zulte Waregem, the side which refused to take a chance on him after his bout with malaria, as “one of the proudest moments of my life”. 

New Levels of Stardom

At the end of the loan Charleroi opted to exercise the option to sign Osimhen permanently, for a fee of €3.50m. Exactly one month later they sold him to French side Lille for €14.00m. 

In France, he found even more success. Osimhen was tipped by many ahead of the 19/20 season as one to watch, but nobody could have predicted that the young Nigerian would turn into a goal machine. 

He scored a brace in his Ligue 1 debut against Nantes, and Osimhen never looked back. He finished the domestic campaign, which was cut short due to the pandemic, with 13 goals and five assists. His performances were rewarded by winning the 2020 Marc-Vivien Foe prize, which recognizes the best African player in Ligue 1. 

Osimhen caught the eyes of many in the UEFA Champions League, especially when he scored against Chelsea. 

“Scoring against Chelsea is one of my biggest achievements, because I watched the Champions League as a boy back home in Nigeria.”

Osimhen will play the next season in Italy with Napoli, and the pressure will be on considering his price tag. But considering all that he has overcome, it should be no challenge for the 21-year-old striker.