The making of the sought-after Victor Osimhen

From playing barefoot in a poverty-stricken Lagos slum to strutting his stuff in Europe’s top football competition, the Nigerian striker is still only at the beginning of his career.

Victor Osimhen was born in Olusosun, a small community around Oregun. It is home to the largest dumpsite in Lagos, Nigeria, to which thousands stream to eke out a living amid tons of waste piled high.

It was in this setting that one of the most sought-after young strikers in football today grew up and began his relationship with the game, playing barefoot on the streets. But his father, Patrick Osimhen, needed some convincing that football was a worthy pursuit.

“My dad was very adamant about the situation because he wanted me to become a medical doctor,” Osimhen said. “But this is what I wanted, this is what I was born for.”

For that conviction in his destiny, he credits his late mother, for not only permitting him to pursue his passion for the beautiful game but also for giving him much-needed support. When she died, he admits he could have lapsed into a state of crisis. Instead, he found the strength to carry on in a strong family structure and now dedicates his goals to her.

“The day she left us, it was really painful. She was the one I was always with because she would give me so much confidence. Every time I score, I look up to the sky to thank God, and also to say to my mom, ‘I hope you’re watching this and you’re proud of me.’”

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Her death was the first in a double whammy of misfortune that hit the family within a short period of time, coming a month after his father lost his job.

“The breadwinner was my elder brother and the fourth-born of the house, because they were working then. They were the ones catering for us, the rest of the children. It wasn’t easy at all.”

Getting his first boots 

Osimhen sold fizzy drinks and sachets of water at a busy road junction after school every day, but still the flame of that football dream refused to die. He tells the humorous story of how he got his first football boots, by essentially pestering his brother Andrew for days.

“He was a vendor, he sold newspapers in the traffic in Ojota. So every time I would go to him, ‘Bro, I need boots, I need boots.’ But he didn’t have much time [to listen]. So then when I went there, I’d be crying and following him in the [traffic] when he was selling papers.

“Eventually, he took me to Yaba [a middle-class market where goods are sold at cheap prices] to get me my first boots. Surprisingly, the boots are still with me. I kept them.”

That reluctance to take no for an answer is a quality he had even then, and it permeates his entire playing style. At the aptly named Synergy Ultimate Strikers Academy, where Osimhen’s development began, they know a thing or two about what makes him tick.

“Determination is what keeps him going,” said Chinedu Ogbenna, founder and grassroots coach at the academy. “He’s not one to shy away from challenges. Victor has a natural talent and it is evident in his zeal to play football and come good in life after such a difficult start.”

Outside Lagos for the first time 

A chance meeting with football agent Shira Ayila (the elder brother of former international Yusuf Ayila) in 2014 proved decisive for the 21-year-old Lille striker. 

After seeing Osimhen play at the National Stadium in Lagos, Ayila remarked on his abilities and invited him to the Agege Stadium, where the national Under-17 team were preparing at the time for the regional West African Football Union B Under-17 Championship. However, it was not until after that tournament was over that he would get to make an impression on the coach of the team, Emmanuel Amuneke.

“I think a month after the tournament, we went to Abuja. There were five of us in the car, with Shira the sixth,” he recalls. “That was the first time I went outside of Lagos, the first time I was leaving my family, actually.”

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A road trip from Lagos to Abuja can take close to nine hours, if not more. They arrived at night and the following morning, they were at the venue of the screening. 

“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.”

Amuneke, however, was not immediately convinced and asked everyone to leave. He eventually asked Osimhen to come again the following day so he could be appraised further.

He is grateful to the former African Footballer of the Year for “shaping me into the kind of player I want to be”. But Amuneke insists he already had all the tools needed to become a breakout star, and that they were apparent right from the off.

“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.”

Announcing himself to the world 

The 2015 Under-17 World Cup in Chile was the announcement of a star. Osimhen set a tournament record with 10 goals, leading Nigeria to victory in the competition for the second edition running.

Unfortunately, his father did not get to see him make history. The games were played quite late in the day and he did not have a generator to power a television on which to watch the games. He relied on second-hand reports from the other children, as well as neighbours.

Almost overnight, his son had become a sensation. He was named the Confederation of African Football’s 2015 Young Player of the Year. It was all happening so fast and Osimhen admits he felt the pressure to “deliver quickly”.

His choice of first professional club would then be crucial. In the end, despite interest from the Premier League (Arsenal were at the front of the queue, reportedly), he opted for Bundesliga side Wolfsburg, where he struggled. 

“Sometimes the way you think in life is not the way it goes. I never regret anything in Wolfsburg. I played with some good players there. Mario Gomez, Divock Origi, Josuha Guilavogui… This really helped me a lot.”

Understandably, Osimhen wrestled with doubt. “It’s okay for people to write you off, but if you write yourself off, this is the worst thing. I had to do something for my family to be proud of me, like they were before at the Under-17 World Cup. 

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“Yes, I won the World Cup and the golden boot for my country in 2015, but what ranks as the biggest success was taking my family out of the slum and giving them a deserved better life. Nothing else gives me more satisfaction in life than seeing them smile and laugh at last. Comfort is not hearing the fans scream my name but my family having a reason to be happy at last. I still want to do more for them.”

Osimhen asked to be loaned to Belgium, joining Sporting Charleroi, where the goals that had deserted him in Germany flooded back. He finished the season with 20 goals, including one he describes as “one of the proudest moments of my life” against Zulte Waregem, which had refused to take a punt on him owing to a failed trial as a result of a bout of malaria.

Europe’s next superstar 

“Those supporting me from the depth of their heart, wishing me well, I will never disappoint them. I think I have the ability to continue to make them happy,” he said.

“Some people like to judge me by looking straight into my face, but deep down I love people. I’m a calm person and slow to anger. I care about people and I love to see people happy. It doesn’t matter what people say, I know who I am and that’s really what matters at the end of the day.

“I am always learning and I want to make my own history. It will bring unnecessary pressure to want to achieve what others did or try to emulate them. I will feel no stress if I can just be me and write my own story.”

The Nigerian star has been a hit in France, where he has tasted Uefa Champions League football with Lille and has attracted the interest of a number of big European clubs, including those in the English Premier League. 

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

There are few stronger believers than the man who first introduced him to the world, and his assessment is the biggest indicator that there is more to come. “Victor is always ready to learn, and still stays humble,” said former Barcelona and Sporting CP winger Amuneke.

“If he continues to stay disciplined and grounded, I believe he can go on to play for some of Europe’s biggest clubs and make a name for himself. The world has not seen anything yet. He is still only developing.”

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