The Napoli hitman spoke exclusively to Pulse Sports on his Ballon d'Or nomination, being the frontrunner for CAF POTY, and his readiness to take up Rashidi Yekini's mantle at next year's AFCON
These are, without a doubt, the best of times for Victor Osimhen.
The form that saw him deliver Napoli’s first Scudetto in over three decades, while at the same time being named the first African Capocannoniere, has continued to hold into the 2023/24 campaign. Already, the Nigeria international has notched four goals for il Partenopei in the new campaign, and last week he earned a nomination (in a shortlist of 30) for the Ballon d’Or.
It is a distinction that Nigeria has not been accorded since Nwankwo Kanu, one of the country’s greatest ever footballers, in 1999.
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Osimhen’s nomination is a marker of how far he has come from humble, underprivileged beginnings. While his early breakout at the 2015 Under-17 World Cup set him on course for greatness, it has nevertheless been a gruelling journey toward the achievement of a childhood dream.
In an exclusive interview with Pulse Sports, the 24-year-old marksman spoke about what being nominated means, his frontrunner status in the CAF African Player of the Year (POTY) stakes, and the upcoming Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON), among other things.
Ballon d’Or nomination
France Football’s 30-man shortlist for the 2023 Ballon d’Or is a stellar who’s who of footballing acumen, but the unmistakable favourites are Lionel Messi, Erling Haaland and Kylian Mbappe. Of that trio, two contested and starred in World Cup final runs for their respective national sides, a privilege that Osimhen could not share.
That no doubt places him at something of a disadvantage, and the Napoli man was wistful in his recollection of the disappointment of missing out on Qatar 2022. “It’s sad that we didn’t go to the World Cup,” he said. “We all felt it; not just Nigeria (fans), but they felt it more because I know how a lot of them trooped out to support us in Abuja and even worldwide. So it was really painful not to be there.”
The loss is made even more acute by the fact that, in the absence of the Super Eagles, Africa enjoyed, statistically, its best-ever performance at the World Cup.
“I know, if we had been there, we could have done well for ourselves, because individually we are really gifted. I think we would have gone far.
“But, of course, life happened.”
Still, irrespective of where he finishes in the final vote, Osimhen is nothing if not grateful, and said the nomination is a recognition of the graft he puts into his craft on a daily basis.
“I have to give God the glory for this achievement because it used to be a mere childhood dream. To achieve this and be among the top 30 best players in the world, is a very big one for me and for my family.
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“It’s something we would see on TV while I was growing up, so to be up there with the best… For me, it shows that hard work pays off and I’m really happy about this. A big thank you to those who have been supporting me, those that have been giving me the confidence in which to carry on with my game. I'm really happy about this and there is more to come with me.”
CAF POTY frontrunner
The Ballon d’Or may be a long shot, but the consensus is that, when it comes to the CAF POTY, Osimhen is the runaway favourite.
Kanu was Nigeria’s last winner, but since then Jay Jay Okocha and Mikel John Obi have come close to the gong without success. On account of his exploits with Napoli, as well as his starring role in AFCON qualifying (he is the top scorer in the series with seven goals in five matches) Osimhen is expected to break that duck.
Treading where some of the greats were unable to would certainly be a huge accomplishment, and the Nigeria no.9 revealed it is a milestone he has lusted after for close to a decade.
“It [would] mean a lot, a whole lot to me,” he said. “I remember in 2015, when I won the (CAF) Youth Player of the Year (award), you know, I saw the winner (Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang) walk up to the podium to receive it (the CAF POTY award). Since then, for me, it became a dream to try to be there and win something as prestigious as that.
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“I think now I have a huge opportunity to actualise this dream. I’m really looking forward to it and hopefully it comes home.”
Building AFCON legacy, rivalling Yekini
Not one to rest on his laurels, potential or otherwise, Osimhen’s attention turns to the AFCON in Cote d’Ivoire. Come January when the tournament kicks off, it will have been over 10 years since Nigeria’s last triumph on the continental stage. Indeed, even the perennial semi-final runs that were taken for granted in the 1990s and 2000s have become a rarity.
Part of that scarcity has been the result of the absence of a reliable goalscorer in the Super Eagles. Osimhen’s rise has therefore spawned no little excitement, as not since the late, great Rashidi Yekini has anyone entirely carried Nigeria’s goal burden in the manner the masked swordsman is currently doing.
Yekini’s legend was, of course, forged at AFCONs: no Nigerian has scored more at the continental showpiece than he did.
In 2023, for the first time, Osimhen will lead Nigeria up the mountain, banner in hand. And while he is respectful of the Goalsfather’s accomplishments, the incumbent no.9 declared himself ready for the challenge of equalling and maybe even surpassing Yekini’s AFCON body of work.
“I don’t think I can challenge the great, the legend Rashidi Yekini because he’s done so well for the country, for the Super Eagles, and to be able to try to follow in his footsteps is a huge one for me. But I think I have the ability to try to meet up with his numbers and to try to help the team as much as I can. I think I'm ready to go. I’m ready.
“I’ve got a lot of players that can also help and support me. So, for me, I’m ready to give my all for the team. If I surpass the goals record, I pass it; if I equal it, I equal it, but I really don’t think about that. I just want to get as many goals as I can score for the team, which is the most important thing.”
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