VICTOR OSIMHEN EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: “I was selling bottled water in the Lagos traffic before 2015”
Napoli’s £150m striker on his love for Drogba, swapping shirts with Haaland and ending his club’s 33-year wait for the Scudetto as Manchester United and Chelsea circle
Victor Osimhen peers into the screen in front of him before giving a thumbs-up and a cheery wave.
It is well into the evening in Lagos but happily for Sportsmail, the Nigerian superstar has been easier to pin down than he is for the unlucky centre-backs tasked with stopping him every week.
A shining light of the European game this season, the Napoli forward is an idol in his native Nigeria and is expected to be one of the hottest properties of the summer transfer market after his stunning performances took his club to the brink of their first league title since the days of Diego Maradona.
The 24-year-old is now valued at a minimum £150million and said recently it was his ‘dream’ to play in the Premier League.
Osimhen is happy in Italy but with Manchester United and Chelsea among those who may be looking for a specialist centre-forward at the end of the season, he will be top of many lists.
As he settles down in his hotel room for his first major interview with a UK media outlet, Osimhen – a doubt for Napoli’s Champions League quarter-final first leg against AC Milan – delivers a fascinating account of his journey to becoming one of the best strikers in the world.
Growing up in difficult circumstances in the Lagos suburbs, Osimhen sold oranges and bottled water on the city’s streets to make ends meet, and saw his local football pitches shut down.
He moved to German club Wolfsburg aged 17 and found the separation from friends and family ‘traumatising’.
After gradual improvement at Charleroi in Belgium and French club Lille, Osimhen’s career has taken off in Italy, where he has 25 goals in 29 games in all competitions this season.
With Napoli so close to glory, Osimhen is now a little more cautious now when asked about English football but his inspiration is one of the icons of the Premier League era – Didier Drogba.
Mention the former Chelsea striker’s name and Osimhen becomes a pure fan again.
‘I have always supported Drogba and I have huge love and admiration for him,’ he gushes.
‘I remember when he scored the equaliser in the 2012 Champions League Final, an amazing header, and the way I celebrated was as though I had scored the goal. My friends knew I was obsessed with Drogba.
‘When I scored 10 goals and won the Golden Boot at the Under-17 World Cup in 2015, one of the Nigeria staff showed me a tweet from Drogba. It said ‘Congratulations Victor. I wish you all the best for the future.’
‘I was shocked. I never believed someone like Didier Drogba would tweet those words to a young aspiring striker. It gave me a whole new motivation to succeed.
‘Trust me, he has been so helpful. One morning last year I woke up and checked my Instagram, and found messages to me from him, complimenting me, but saying I still had a long way to go. It’s amazing to be in contact with him.
‘I try to model my game on his and there are a lot of things I can take from his game and add to my own, so there is nothing better for a young player.
‘He’s a hero in his country, he’s played to the highest level, won a lot and made African youngsters dream. He’s a busy man but whenever he sees my messages on Instagram he replies immediately. It’s a great feeling.’
Doubtless Osimhen now has the same status among Africa’s young forwards. And if not every Premier League follower is familiar with his work, they soon will be.
He may not be quite as prolific as Erling Haaland – who is? – but Osimhen is arguably a more complete No 9. He is technically outstanding, powerful in the air, quick, athletic and intelligent.
Wearing a protective mask on the pitch after breaking his cheekbone and eye socket in November 2021, the 24-year-old even looks like a superhero.
But for the duration of our interview, he is far more like Clark Kent, with his unaffected, easy manner and engaging conversation.
The idea of Osimhen v Haaland duel for the Premier League Golden Boot is thrilling yet Osimhen reveals that the pair already share great mutual respect.
‘I play with Leo Ostigard at Napoli, who is very good friends with Haaland and plays for Norway with him,’ Osimhen explains.
‘I am a fan of the Bundesliga so I’ve followed him for a while and every weekend he seems to score two, three, four goals.
‘Ostigard spoke to me a lot about him, how hard he trained, then one day he said: ‘If you want, I can bring you his shirt.’ I said: ‘Of course, bro.’
‘So he spoke to Haaland, who also asked for my shirt, so we swapped them through Ostigard. He is one of the best of his generation so to be compared with him – and considered one of the best strikers in the world – only inspires me to do more.
‘I can score four goals in a game, I can provide more assists, I can do many more things as I have the quality to execute them. I need to work even harder and then at the end of my career I can hopefully look back and say yes, I did some wonderful things.
‘Everyone watches the EPL (Premier League), it is really competitive, but Serie A is also one of the strongest leagues. When Cristiano Ronaldo played there, he said the same thing. I am really happy to be there.
‘If we can win the title for Napoli, the city will never be the same again. When you go to the city, the fans have tears in their eyes. They haven’t won the league since Maradona’s time (1990) and they are so close to realising this dream.
‘Sometimes they come to the players’ houses to show their love, as late as 2am. Naples bleeds for football and I have imagined many times how the city will explode if we can win the Scudetto (league title). We have chances to go far in the Champions League, too.’
Osimhen’s rise is all the more impressive considering the adversity he has experienced. His was not the smooth path of the golden prospect who is taken into the academy of a top club in his early years and progresses into the first team.
There have been sacrifices throughout his story which make today’s success all the sweeter, as he rubs shoulders with Nigerian greats like Jay Jay Okocha, Kanu, Rashidi Yekini and Emmanuel Amunike.
Osimhen’s style of play is unselfish yet he would not be human if he were not attracted by personal goals, with the African Footballer of the Year award – won by Drogba in 2006 and 2009 – particularly prominent in his thinking.
‘I started playing football at seven or eight but I was not really into it as I was still going with my sisters to sell oranges,’ he recalls. ‘I knew I was good at it but then at a certain point I realised I had to take it seriously.
‘They closed down the pitch at my primary school and we had a lot of talented players, but most of them went to get jobs. After that I had to walk for an hour to train at a secondary school outside my community.
‘At the same time I was selling bottled water in the Lagos traffic, trying to help my family however I could. I had trials for the Nigeria Under-17 side, meaning a five-hour journey to (capital city) Abuja.
‘Initially I didn’t make the grade and when I found out, I had tears in my eyes. But I kept pushing and eventually I was chosen. The Under-17 World Cup was a turning point for me.
‘I am not going to lie. It would be my dream to be African Footballer of the Year. I was at the ceremony in 2015, when Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang won the award. As an African you dream of this prize and maybe I can win.
‘My first experience of European football, at Wolfsburg, was difficult. But it paved the way for what I have done since. I know that if I change countries, I will adapt quickly.
‘I am not the type of player who folds under pressure and I try to stay calm in every situation. The season is going really well. I have putting up some amazing numbers and I am proud of what I have achieved – but I am not done yet.’