When Napoli broke the bank to sign Super Eagles striker Victor Osimhen for an African record €80m in July 2020, the Nigerian was expected to help the side push for honours on the domestic and continental fronts.
Some months after his arrival in Naples from French club Lille, there were more questions than answers about his move.
His debut season was marred by injuries, suspensions, and the COVID-19 pandemic, meaning the forward only managed 10 goals and three assists in 30 matches.
The following term, he seemed destined for trouble. A nasty facial injury threatened him. Donning a protective face mask, he defied the odds, made a stunning return to the pitch, and racked up 14 goals to become Napoli’s top league scorer.
The feat earned him the Globe Soccer’s Emerging Player of the Year 2022 award and the best U-23 Player of the Season in Italy.
But Napoli fell short once again. They lost to Barcelona in the last 32 of the Europa League in the 2021/2022 campaign.
They also finished third in the Serie A and seven points behind winners AC Milan. That meant the dream of claiming the title last won with Diego Maradona remained elusive.
But now in Osimhen’s third season, the football-crazy city of Naples is on cloud nine and on the cusp of a first Scudetto title since 1990.
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‘One Game at a Time’
With 19 league goals so far, the Super Eagle carries the hopes of the city on his lanky shoulders and is arguably one of the most in-form strikers in Europe.
His impeccable form – with the formidable partnership of Khvicha Kvaratskhelia – has pushed Luciano Spalletti’s side 18 points clear at the Serie A summit after 26 matches.
At the Diego Amando Maradona Stadium, the 24-year-old is turning heads. His name was chanted in the stands – as has happened on several occasions – as Napoli saw off Juventus 5-1 earlier in the year. The Nigerian, as expected, was on target, scoring twice in the drubbing of the Old Ladies.
As Osimhen continues to chalk up the goals in Italy, he never forgets how he started. Born in Lagos State, the Super Eagle often alluded to hawking on the streets of the city to augment the family’s income.
Despite the difficulties growing up and battling other passions in Nigeria’s commercial centre, his love for football was unquestionable.
“Nothing interested me more than playing football and I really thank God for where I’m today,” he told the CAF website in 2015.
His passion later paid off as he scored 10 goals in seven games en route to Nigeria’s historic U-17 World Cup victory in 2015. His performance got him the tournament’s Golden Boot, the Silver Ball awards, and the CAF Youth Player of the Year prize in 2015.
That spectacular outing at the championship also got him a move to Wolfsburg from where he joined Charleroi in Belgium.
In 2019, he switched to Lille in France and finished the campaign with 13 goals in 25 Ligue 1 matches, and 18 goals in all competitions.
Years after his exploits in France, one goal at a time, the Nigerian is living his dreams in Serie A and is on the verge of becoming the first African in the league’s 125-year history to finish as the top scorer.
While Napoli are regarded as destined champions with his goals contributing immensely to that, the former Lille forward is not carried away by the outpour of encomiums.
“Winning the title has been our target since the start of the season, but we’re focusing on one game at a time,” he told the club’s website in late January.
No Comparison With Maradona
The only times the club have clinched the league title were in the 1986/87 and 1989/90 campaigns. On both occasions, the legendary Diego Maradona propelled them to victory.
Although several fans have likened him to the Argentine football great – who is worshipped in Naples – Osimhen is focused on helping the team.
“When you talk about Napoli, the first player who comes to the mind of the fans is Maradona. Even if we can win the Scudetto, we cannot compare with what Maradona has done for this club, he’s more than a legend,” Osimhen told the press after scooping Italy’s foreign athlete of the year prize earlier in the month. “We’ve been doing quite well this season, but I don’t consider myself as an icon until we achieve the objective.”
His exploits have not only brought him awards and praise. The Serie A top-scorer has been linked to several clubs. The likes of Chelsea, Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal, and French outfit Paris Saint-German (PSG) are all reportedly seeking the Nigerian’s signature.
But he appears destined for English the Premier League, a championship he has not hidden his admiration for.
“A lot of people worldwide consider the Premier League as the best and strongest league,” the 24-year-old, said. “I’m in one the best leagues of the world, which is the Italian Serie A. Of course, I’m working so hard to make sure that I achieve my dream of playing in the Premier League someday, but it’s a process and I just want to keep on this momentum.”
‘The Complete Package’
What really stands Osimhen out? The striker’s prowess has attracted praise from the Partenopei coach. Spalletti was particularly impressed with Osimhen’s leveller in the win over Roma in late January. The 2015 U-17 World Cup winner scored what could be his best goal since joining Napoli when he controlled the ball with his chest, then thigh, before volleying it into the roof of the net.
“There is everything in that goal: technical quality, character to juggle the ball between two defenders, and then he hit this rocket into the net, as he really has got a cannon for a foot,” Spalletti said in his post-game conference. “He has physical strength, accepts the challenge, tracks back to help, and is good in the air. He is the complete package.”
After the 2-1 victory, Roma coach Jose Mourinho lauded Osimhen for his imperious form and believes the Nigerian is at par with Chelsea and Cote d’Ivoire legend Didier Drogba.
“He (Osimhen) is of the same level as Drogba,” the Portuguese, who coached Drogba at Chelsea, said, adding that “his goal was fantastic; he did the same thing when we met earlier this season, so he’s a fantastic player”.
The late January win over Mourinho’s side has further raised hopes among fans who are now dreaming of being crowned Italian champions after over three decades.
“At this point, only we can lose it now. It’s all in our hands,” one supporter, Mirko Brandini, told AFP.
The 18-year-old travelled to Naples from Tuscany with three friends and hung around outside Napoli’s Stadio Maradona to bathe in the euphoria of a thrilling win against one of their fiercest rivals.
Giuseppe Bruscolotti had a great view of their first league titles in 1987, the penultimate season of his long career playing in Napoli’s defence which began in 1972.
“We’re part of history but the current team are becoming part of it too. The only thing left for them to do is win the title,” a confident Bruscolotti told AFP, seemingly less troubled by superstition than the fans. “Napoli will win the league. History shows that a team with that many points at the halfway point has always won it.”
‘We Can Win the Champions League’
Away from the league, Napoli are in the quarter-final of the Champions League after seeing off Eintracht Frankfurt 3-0 in a second-leg last-16 tie. The encounter ended 5-0 on aggregate in the Italian team’s favour with Osimhen striking thrice in both legs to become the first Nigerian to score two goals in the knockout phase of the competition.
And while Napoli had not gotten to this phase of the competition before, the Nigerian reached the 50th goal mark for the club in 89 games – he scored twice in the second leg beating of Eintratcht to take his total goal tally for the side to 51 – and is dreaming of conquering Europe.
“We are doing well this season and I believe we can win the Champions League,” he told Gazzetta dello Sport. “I think this is a kind of ‘magical’ season where you cannot put limits on what a team can achieve.”
Having reached the Champions League quarter-final, spirits are so high in Naples. Even owner Aurelio De Laurentiis is optimistic of a deep run in this year’s competition.
For a club that has Osimhen – alongside Kvaratskhelia – firing on all cylinders, it would be no surprise if Napoli cap off a stunning season with a Champions League title.