Victor Osimhen’s second goal against Juventus in January will live long in the memory of Napoli fans.
With Napoli winning 3-1 at home, the Nigerian striker rose above everyone else to meet a cross to head past Wojciech Szczęsny and grab his second of the day, effectively killing the game.
In his typical style, the Nigerian whisked off his trademark face mask after scoring and ran towards the fans, taking it all in. Napoli’s eventual 5-1 win exorcised Juventus – a ghost of their past – and sent a statement that the Partenopei was on course to win a first Scudetto in more than 30 years.
Osimhen has led Napoli’s title charge but, while his talents were never in doubt, few predicted Napoli’s 24-year-old striker would be so dominant this season.
His tally of 21 goals in Italy’s Serie A has made him the league’s top scorer by some margin, and he has also scored four in Napoli’s historic run to the Champions League quarters.
Osimhen is not only a ruthless finisher but a scorer of all types of goals – from the tap-in to the spectacular, with either foot or his head – and his four assists in Serie A show he has more to his game than just goalscoring.
With Napoli currently 14 points clear of their nearest rivals in Serie A and poised to win their first title since Diego Maradona led them to a second Scudetto in 1990, Osimhen has captured the heart of a gritty, working-class port city that knows how to put its heroes on a pedestal.
The Nigerian international’s face with his mask – worn after he sustained a cheekbone injury – adorns cakes across the southern city. Fans queue up to buy replica masks from stalls outside the stadium. And a song composed by musician Alex Garini about the striker went viral in February and celebrates his goal-scoring ability and his grit to defy the odds.
“Victor is reaching cult status with his dedication to the team, his embrace of the fans that we see when he celebrates his goals and how they in turn have begun to infuse him into daily life,” Lolade Adewuyi, the managing editor at Soccernet Nigeria, told Al Jazeera.
“Perhaps he will become a Maradona-esque figure if he leads them to the Serie A and the Champions League titles.”
Osimhen missed three games in recent weeks with a groin injury and Napoli have looked blunt without him.
But he will be back in the side for Tuesday’s crunch second-leg Champions League quarterfinal against fellow Italian giants AC Milan, who beat Napoli 1-0 in the first leg in Milan.
Meanwhile, his blistering form this season has made him one of the most coveted players in world football.
‘He has so much fight inside him’
Osimhen grew up in Olusosun, Lagos, idolising former Chelsea and Ivory Coast striker Didier Drogba.
He has said in interviews that his family had to struggle to make ends meet when he was a child and he had lost his mother at a young age.
Journalist Oma Akatugba, Osimhen’s friend and journalist from Nigeria, believes these struggles helped shape the Lagos-born star’s playing style and character.
“He once said to me that in a very poor neighbourhood, [his family] were the poorest. They needed to fight for everything. He had to work very hard, sell newspapers, do all kinds of menial jobs to earn a living while playing,” Akatugba said.
“That is what has built him into the strong, energetic, pacy and powerful striker that he is today. Much more than that, he has so much fight inside of him.”
Nigeria Under-17s coach Nnamdi Onuigbo says Osimhen always appeared to have a huge drive to succeed.
“Nigeria is a tough place to try to become a professional footballer. Despite all the talents here, the structure and opportunities are not as organised or readily available as it is in Europe,” he said.
“It takes a brave, determined kid to make it to the top from the suburbs in Nigeria. Osimhen is one of them.”
Akatugba says that, since his early days back in Nigeria, Osimhen has learned to control his temper and avoid being provoked by opponents, and his game has developed significantly.
“His game has evolved from that player who plays with that raw, brute force. That raw energy now has some level of finesse to the game,” Akatugba said. “Especially after joining Napoli, where football is quite tactical, as is the case in Italy generally. Also, playing under [coach] Luciano Spalletti [has improved him].”
Osimhen first moved to Europe in 2017, joining Bundesliga side Wolfsburg. He struggled to get first-team games and didn’t score in 14 games for the club. But he hailed how ex-Bayern Munich striker Mario Gomez helped him in training during their time at the club.
That proved vital after he moved to Charleroi on loan in 2018 and went on to score 20 goals in 36 games in all competitions for the Belgian club. He scored 18 goals in a season for Lille in 2019-20, before securing a move to Napoli in July 2020.
Akatugba says the experience of moving in quick succession didn’t just improve him as a footballer, it also matured him as a person.
“He has moved quite a lot in a very short period. That has helped him adapt to different cultures and to relate with people of different backgrounds and understand them,” he said.
Osimhen’s partnership with Georgian winger Khvicha Kvaratskhelia at Napoli has sparkled in the league, and it has become the talk of Europe as well. Coach Spalletti’s attacking, possession-based style, which also relies on allowing the strengths of individual players to thrive, has made Napoli a well-oiled machine.
“Earlier, a lot of Napoli journalists told me that perhaps [Osimhen] might need to improve tactically … He seems to understand feedback, he seems to understand positive criticism. That has helped his game to grow,” said Akatugba.
Osimhen’s 53 goals for Napoli have come in just 92 games.
Meanwhile, his success at Napoli is also garnering the Italian club a growing fanbase back home.
“Many Nigerians are keenly following Napoli’s games because of his incredible performances – just like the old Nigerian stars brought their following to their clubs,” Adewuyi noted.
“For example, many Nigerians, including myself, are fans of Arsenal because of Nwankwo Kanu. Many young Nigerians are becoming fans of Napoli because of Victor.”
However, Osimhen’s transfer value is rising with every goal he scores and he is reportedly on the radar of several Premier League sides.
Osimhen has said he wants to emulate Drogba and play in the Premier League one day.
Napoli fan Andrea Morganti says he desperately hopes Osimhen can resist the allure of the Premier League for a while longer, and says Osimhen’s connection with those in Naples is not only down to his goals.
“It’s about everything, the way he moves on the pitch and just the relationship he has with us fans outside the pitch. There isn’t a moment that he doesn’t stop to say hello and autograph our shirts. He is a humble boy who loves the city,” Morganti told Al Jazeera.
“Let’s hope he stays in Naples for a long time. We are ready to celebrate [the title] with him.”