Game recognises game. And Asisat Oshoala summed it up backstage on Monday at the CAF Awards in Marrakech, Morocco.
“C’mon, Victor, that’s my boy! …What. The boy from Olusosun street. Let’s go!” said the excited 29-year-old Super Falcons and Barcelona star, with a beaming smile etched across her face as she clapped and slightly clenched her fists like she had scored a winning goal.
‘Agba Baller’ had just won her record-extending sixth CAF African Player of the Year award when she acknowledged a famous win for her compatriot backstage. 24-year-old Victor Osimhen had just won his first, and at this rate, maybe not his last. When a focused man is at the summit, he sees even farther.
Stars align as both talented Nigerians share similar back stories; they are both talented footballers and history makers who broke barriers on the streets of Lagos to chase their dreams. And on Monday night in the red city of Princes, they conquered continental heights, as the world stood in ovation. Against the odds, they had broken their way onto the global stage, mapping their courses with goals and hitting targets they had only once dreamed of.
Olusosun, a bustling area in Nigeria’s commercial capital, had courted global infamy when it was featured in an equally infamous and much criticised 2010 BBC documentary ‘Welcome to Lagos’ as the location of a huge landfill dumpsite with scavengers in its wake. But that’s not even half the story.
Now, that boy from the streets of Olusosun has become a man, conquering continental heights and gracing the global stage. And boy, has this man won big.
“I am so proud of myself for achieving this prestigious award,” the Super Eagles and Napoli star said after winning the prestigious African Player of the Year award for the first time. The history maker was a promise foretold. And sometimes, promises carry twinkles of golden history on their feet.
Destiny’s child. It had been signed off in the stars. As an Under-17 player in 2015, Osimhen won the FIFA Golden Boot and later the CAF Young player of the Year awards after scoring a record 10 goals in seven games as the Golden Eaglets lifted the FIFA U-17 World Cup trophy in Chile for a record fifth time. At 24 he has won the CAF Men’s Player of the Year, Nigeria’s first in 24 years.
A week earlier, Osimhen had won the Italian Footballers’ Association (AIC) Player of the Year award for the 2022/2023 Serie A season, having led Napoli to their first Scudetto (title) in over 30 years. He also finished the season as the highest goal scorer with 26 goals. In November, the 24-year-old Nigerian was ranked number 8 in the 2023 Ballon d’Or award, which was won by Lionel Messi. 2023 was, indeed, a stellar year for the stellar player. A global superstar is on the rise.
Obviously, the Nigerian masked striker has lethal focus, just like his feet. Only Osimhen’s critics would doubt how much farther this football assassin can go in hitting his targets, and then global football heights.
With that unmistakable gait. That feint. That move. The way he harasses defenders and goalkeepers to submission with his guile and movement. You could call it braggadocio. But it is sheer bravado of a man who has seen much of the valley (injuries, loss, setbacks et al) to appreciate the sunset from the mountain top.
From the streets of Olusosun to Ultimate Strikers Academy, Lagos, down through the rough paths of VfL Wolsburg, into the heart of Charleroi, and up the mountain of Lille to the summit of the Cathedral in Partenopei, Napoli, the journey of the new King of African football was not always paved with gold.
It came with dust, dumpsites, hawked wares and rough diamonds. But they say a diamond has as many facets as its fire. Shaped by extreme heat and pressure from depths of the Earth’s crust, they shine brightest when fully formed. As Africa’s Best Player in 2023, Osimhen has now emerged fully formed. And like diamond, he brims with fire, brilliance and glory. The sheer grit and determination to rise against every odd is an underestimated human adrenaline.
“As a young boy who came from the streets of Olusosun, who had to hawk in traffic almost every day of the week while growing in-order to survive the numerous challenges my family and I were facing, becoming a Treasure in Africa and World Football was a wild dream. Words can’t express the joy in my heart, this is a very special moment to me,” Osimhen posted on his X (formerly Twitter) handle on Tuesday to celebrate his feat.
The lethal striker from the heart of Nigeria’s commercial capital, with a fitting face gear like the assassin in The Mask of Zorro, described his football journey as a rollercoaster of highs, tough lows and emotions.
“The goals, echoes and jubilation of victories keeps me going even when the critics, hate and pain of defeats hit me hard in the chest. The support of my amazing family, my fans most especially my Nigerian supporters and the love for the beautiful game of football motivates me to aim higher daily,” he added.
That 24-year wait
A section of the Nigerian media called it a 24-year football ‘jinx’ for Africa’s most populous country. That word might be disservice for a country with sublime talents. Nigerians waited, for Jay Jay Okocha, Mikel John Obi, and others. It was a long, laborious, but eventually glorious patience.
Twenty-four years was worth the wait for a beloved 24-year-old King. A promise kept on ice, like premium champagne, like fine wine. For millions of Nigerians, his CAF award win was truly sweet and ultimately satisfying.
The roll call that heralded Osimhen’s CAF Player of the Year award was truly golden. It was the decade of dominance of Nigerian excellence from players like Kanu ‘Papilo’ Nwankwo, Rashidi ‘goalsfather’ Yekini, Emmanuel Amunike, and Victor ‘the Prince of Monaco’ Ikpeba.
It is fitting, almost prophetic, that one of the great players, Amunike, had coached the Napoli striker in his Under-17 glory days. “First of all, I want to say thank you God for everything. Special thanks goes to Emmanuel Amunike. Without him, I don’t think I would be standing in front of you guys holding one of the most prestigious awards in world football. It’s a dream come true for me,” Osimhen stated, while he acknowledged his other footballing mentors.
Eighth in Ballon d’Or. First Nigerian to achieve that feat. Inspired Napoli to their first Scudetto in 33 years, following the footsteps of another great, the incomparable Diego Maradona.
On the CAF podium on Monday, Osimhen also acknowledged Didier Drogba as his idol. The Ivorian and Chelsea legend later paid homage to the new king. “Long live the King and Queen of Africa. Congratulations my Nigerian People, we are waiting for you in January @afcon_2023 (Africa Cup of Nations)” Drogba posted, feting Osimhen and Oshoala.
Osimhen sure learnt from the best. He has the gangling attributes of Nigeria’s current record goal scorer, Yekini; sprinkled with some of the subtlety and guile of the mesmerizing King Kanu, the keen eye for goals of Ikpeba, and the lethal ferocity of his former coach, Amunike.
If he keeps his head up and stay consistent, he could become world’s best. Another Super Eagles great, Samson Siasia, who coached Osimhen in the Under 20s, told me recently.
The late Yekini is still Nigeria’s all-time leading goal scorer with 37 goals from 62 matches. Osimhen has 20 already and counting from 26 games (and still has time on his side). A 59% to 76% rate of a goal per match respectively. Also, Yekini had won it for the first time in 1993. Osimhen won it in 2023. Thirty years apart, the length of a generation. The cycle is now complete.
Yekini’s win triggered football excellence from Nigeria’s finest in its most golden decade so far: 1993, 1994. 1996, 1997, 1999. Only the mercurial Abedi Pele Ayew, George Weah and Mustapha Hadji interrupted that blatant dominance.
Could Osimhen do the same for his generation, stirring a ripple effect for another golden decade, and even surpass its football progenitors by winning it multiple times, and then maybe Ballon d’Or top 3 or an outright win? That old sage, Time, and its cousin, Chance; as well as other factors like player’s attitude, hard work, diligence, consistency, and fitness, will decide. He may have just inspired a glorious football renaissance in Africa’s sleeping giant.