Victor Osimhen has been hailed as the “new king of Africa” after the Nigeria striker was named as the continent’s Footballer of the Year for 2023.
The 24-year-old Napoli man picked up the prize at the Confederation of African Football (Caf) awards on Monday night, seeing off competition from Egypt captain Mohamed Salah and Morocco defender Achraf Hakimi.
For Osimhen, who grew up on the dusty streets of Olusosun in Lagos, it is a “dream come true” after facing the stark reality of life as a child.
“I have to thank everybody who has helped me on this journey and all Africans who have helped to put me on the map despite my faults,” Osimhen said.
Greeted daily with the stench from a waste dump in his neighbourhood, Osimhen says he had a burning desire to succeed against all odds.
He had to sell newspapers and bottles of water, describing his situation as being “in the trenches”.
“As a young boy who had to hawk in traffic almost every day 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,” he said in a message posted on X.
“My football journey has been a rollercoaster of highs, tough lows and emotions.
“The goals and jubilation of victories keep me going even when the critics, hate and pain of defeats hit me hard in the chest.”
After scoring 26 goals to help Napoli to a first Italian league title in 33 years, Osimhen became the first Nigerian to win the Caf’s men’s award since former Arsenal forward Nwankwo Kanu in 1999.
“What Osimhen has done is incredible,” ex-Arsenal and Togo striker Emmanuel Adebayor, who won the award in 2008, told Caf TV.
“Scoring goals may be easy in England but doing so in Italy is not because they are defensively and tactically strong.”
With former Ivory Coast striker Didier Drogba, himself a two-time Caf Footballer of the Year, describing the former Lille striker as Africa’s new footballing royalty, there are now hopes that he can spur Nigeria on to a new era of success.
Victor Osimhen and Kelechi Nwakali with awards at the Under-17 World Cup in 2015
Osimhen (left) burst onto the scene at the Fifa Under-17 World Cup in 2015
Osimhen’s rise to the top has been a slow burn rather than the story of a one-season wonder.
Starring for Nigeria in their victorious 2015 Under-17 World Cup was the turning point in his career which indicated he was a child of destiny.
His 10 goals in Chile secured the golden boot and saw him named Caf’s Young Player of the Year – yet Osimhen almost missed out on selection for the squad.
“I had already overlooked him because he was paired with other players who played badly,” Emmanuel Amuneke, the coach of that side, told BBC Sport Africa.
“But my backroom staff noticed him and drew my attention to him. I gave him another chance and he proved himself to make the squad.”
It was no surprise that Osimhen, after receiving his Caf award in Morocco, praised his former coach for helping him fulfil his dreams.
“Special thanks goes to Emmanuel Amuneke. Without him, I don’t think I would be standing here holding one of the most prestigious awards in world football,” he said.
There have certainly been a few bumps along the way.
His move to German club Wolfsburg in January 2017 almost turned out to be a nightmare for the young prospect, who featured 16 times without scoring before a loan switch to Charleroi in Belgium in 2018-19 provided a lifeline.
Osimhen’s reputation was enhanced at Lille to the point that Napoli were reported to have paid $96m (£76.5m) – one of the highest fees ever for an African player – for his services in July 2020.
Before his stellar season which secured a historic Serie A title, he was forced to miss out on the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) because of Covid-19 and a facial injury which still requires him to play wearing a protective mask.
Moreover, he had to deal with the death of both his mother and father in 2020
“Losing my dear parents in the course of this journey leaves a scar in my heart as they have always been my major driving force for success,” Osimhen added in his post on X.
“To my wonderful family, thanks for always having my back and loving me so much. I wouldn’t have made it this far without your support.”
Osimhen was directly involved in 31 goals as Napoli won Serie A and reached the quarter-finals of the Uefa Champions League last season
Liverpool forward Salah and former Reds team-made Sadio Mane, both 31, had won the past four Caf awards between them, and Osimhen’s success in Marrakesh could herald the coming of the next generation.
Fellow Super Eagle Victor Boniface (Bayer Leverkusen), Ghana midfielder Mohammed Kudus (West Ham) and Guinea striker Serhou Guirassy (Stuttgart) have all made waves already this season.
Meanwhile, Nigeria fans hope Osimhen’s recognition could provide the impetus for the national side to challenge again for the Afcon trophy, which the West Africans last lifted in 2013.
The side failed to qualify for the finals in 2015 and 2017, finished third in 2019 and were knocked out in the last 16 in the 2021 edition in Cameroon.
“This recognition at the highest level is a massive shot in the arm for Nigeria football,” Abuja Football Association chairman Adam Muktar Mohammed told AFP.
“Evidently, there is an abundance of talent in Nigeria. We only have to harness this talent to be a major force in international football.”
Drogba – whom Osimhen has acknowledged as his idol growing up – believes Nigeria could certainly be a threat at the 2023 Afcon, which kicks off in Ivory Coast next month.
The Super Eagles have been drawn alongside the hosts, Equatorial Guinea and Guinea-Bissau in Group A at the finals.
“We are waiting for you in January,” Drogba added in his congratulatory message to Osimhen.
Should Osimhen get his hands on the Nations Cup trophy in Abidjan on 11 February, the adulation he has received in football-mad Nigeria since his coronation on Monday night will be pushed to new levels.