By Ebenezer Ishola
Olusosun community, to many residents of Lagos, is synonymous with an infamous landfill site that sprawled beside it. An eyesore that takes their waste but produces nothing than a belly-turning stench. An area so dim, its only brightness comes from the constant fire incinerating the mountain of rubbish dumped there.
At least, that was the popular narrative until the community coughed out a scrawny go-getter called Victor Osimhen.
On Thursday, his goal earned Napoli its first Serie A title in 33 years. The Mediterranean city of Naples sang Osimhen’s song in a tone of wonder, almost identical to that of Diego Maradona. As the city skyline bubbled and shimmered from fireworks above, thousands of fans below wore facemasks in honour of the Nigerian whizz-kid. A cold-blooded marksman at the peak of his unlimited power.
With 21 league goals already, all the African scoring records in Serie A lay dead behind. Yet, he still has five more games to go.
A SCAVENGER’S PARADISE
Olusosun community squats underneath the smelly shadow of the dump site like a subjugated younger sibling. The area lies just a few kilometres from Ojota, and its odour is the welcoming warmth that heralds travellers coming to Lagos through the Berger axis to the state.
The landfill is a rolling hill of dirt, decay and dung that receives at least 10,000 tons more daily; its stretch claims over 40 acres of land, offering daily feeds for scavengers, flies and vermins.
The Kudirat Abiola Way separates the behemoth of decomposition from the little portion of the neighbourhood where Osimhen was raised.
Crossing over the road, one walks gingerly into the sloppy, muddy road of Moshalashi lane, which snakes into an alley of nameless streets where houses meld into one another like cancerous cells.
The house Osimhen grew up in
After a few twists and turns and probably losing the sense of direction, the filthy road halts at the concrete flooring off Anisere Close. The plastered floor is divided by a tiny line of drainage which washes debris past the front of the house where Osimhen grew up.
A two-storey building crammed into a space for a house half its size. The house’s recent cream and brown coating fails to hide its age as cracks decorate the central pillar and damaged water pipes crisscross its surroundings.
It is almost impossible to believe the crouching building is where one of the best footballers in the world at the moment once laid his head; with the alley, reeking of urine and the buzz of flies.
A STAR RAISED BY THE WHOLE NEIGHBOURHOOD
Osimhen’s story has some chilling episodes, ranking it beyond the reach of the grass to grace cliche.
He lost his mother so early that he does not recall the year any more. Patrick, his father, lost his job too, and the children began to shoulder their own responsibilities. Osimhen was the last child, but he could hardly boast of the convenience generally bequeathed to the youngest one.
The family of eight surrendered one of their rented two rooms to manage cost. They squeezed themselves into the single-room apartment and hoped for better days.
His was a harsh childhood which taught him the value of labour, sweat and community. Without a mother, his neighbours stepped in and rendered their bits to his survival.
Risikat Bello, a former neighbour, said Osimhen was the son of all the mothers in the alley. He was diligent and willing to render help, and the women rewarded him with stipends.
“He was a good boy growing up. We all in the neighbourhood used to send him on errands. His elder brother was a newspaper vendor at Ojota and the whole family was working; People around here would send him on errands and reward him with cash,” she told TheCable.
Bello added that one of the women was Mama Oshodi, her late mother-in-law. She said Osimhen was always available to help the woman in her old age and gladly ran errands regardless of the stress.
“I remember Mama Oshodi, my late mother-in-law, used to send him to buy kerosene. Even errands that I would not be willing to go for the woman. Victor would go at any time,” she said.
“He used to help another woman, Iya Chi-chi, who sold uncooked rice and beans. Victor used to help her carry the bags from her supplier. Sometimes, when he failed to run the errands on time, the woman would threaten to seize his football boots as punishment.”
Baba Muslimot, another former neighbour and street brother popularly known as Maintain, said Osimhen’s perseverance and determination to eke his way out of penury with his power spurred him to become the footballer’s mentor at a very young age.
“I was coaching a team in Egbeda then. But I used to visit Osimhen’s team training at Olusosun Primary School. So, one day, I decided to bring my team over to face the team here. He performed really well in that game and even scored three goals,” Baba Muslimot said.
“From then, I often recruited him into whichever tournament my team would play in. He was very determined and showed a hunger for success. Even when he didn’t have money for transport, I’d tell my wife to give him, and he would come and join my guys in training. He used to keep his boots just on the roof of the house here before the building was renovated.”
A FIGHTER, HUSTLER AND DREAMER
Olusosun Primary School: The stadium where Osimhen started his football career
Amidst the struggle for survival, Osimhen found hope in football at a very young age. He and a couple of friends enrolled in a cadet football club in the neighbourhood called Peric Academy.
For kids groping through the darkness of poverty, sports remain the brightest lights on the other side of the tunnel. Osimhen was no exception. He knew the height football could elevate him beyond, even when only a few saw it.
Victor Abel, a former academy mate, said Osimhen’s grubby appearance while growing up made some people dismiss his talent and chance of success in life.
“One thing about destiny: you cannot say never. No human being knows tomorrow,” Abel told TheCable.
“When Victor was growing up, he faced a lot of challenges. He could easily be written off based on his appearance — and say he would not amount to anything. But God works in miraculous ways.”
Industrious Osimhen was juggling football with street hawking. He spent noons battering through defenders in training and the evening darting after speedy cars with sachets of cold water in Lagos traffic.
“It was hard for the family, but they were hustlers. They were all working, from the firstborn to the last. From selling sachets of water to construction work,” Baba Muslimot added.
However, stipends from menial jobs, although enough to put food on the table of the large family, were too lean to afford the luxury of sports. Football boots were expensive, at least for him, and Osimhen had to find another way around the lack of a good one. He and a host of friends would climb to the crest of the Olusosun landfill, scavenging for dishevelled shoes they could wear to play the game they love.
However, Osimhen’s determination and hunger for success wavered at a point, and it took the intervention of Baba Muslimot before it was refocused.
“There was one time he stopped playing football,” he said.
“He was running errands for a ‘Baba Ijebu’ agent, and the work took him off football for a bit.”
Shortly after, Osimhen was called up to the U17 national team camp headed by Emmanuel Amunike, former Super Eagles forward.
Where Osimhen used to hangout with friends. Now, a burial ground
With over 4,000 players from all over the country awaiting to show their talent on the pitch of the FIFA Goal Project in Abuja, Amunike gave each group of players 30 minutes to make an impression.
However, when Osimhen’s group filed out, the coach was tired and waved them off the pitch after just 15 minutes.
Between that minute and the next, a football career that would be the envy of many seemed to have been snuffed out.
But a room of darkness cannot arrest the brightness of a golden hub. An assistant coach had noticed the doggedness and street-sharpened litheness of Osimhen during the drab match. He informed Amunike of the boy’s hunger. Osimhen was called for another round of trials, and he proved good enough to make the Golden Eaglets’ team that won the U17 World Cup in 2015.
Osimhen was not just a squad member. He was a vital cog in the team’s steamrolling machine. He scored a record ten goals, claiming both the golden boot and silver ball for the competition held in Chile.
Olusosun was agog, and the community knew the boy it took under its wings a few years ago had matured and would set out to conquer the world.
But Osimhen had to battle another spell of hardship to adjust to the cut-throat world of professional football.
He rejected big European clubs like Barcelona, Arsenal, Juventus and the instant glamour and money they promised. He joined VfL Wolfsburg, a thoughtful decision focused on personal growth. However, his time at the Volkswagen Arena was anything but a misadventure.
In his first season, the Nigerian suffered an injury on his right knee, and it took three surgeries to amend. Shortly after, a shoulder problem also took him out of action.
The club became impatient and farmed him out to FC Charleroi in Belgium, and in the quietness of the Belgian Pro League, he scrapped together his baulking limbs. The alley leading to the house where Osimhen grew up.
Osimhen reconnected with the fighter of a child he was in the streets of Lagos, and before long, his reinvigoration attracted Lille to pay $12 million for him in 2019. He scored 18 goals and was awarded the season’s Prix Marc Vivien Foe, the prize awarded to the best African player in the French league.
The performance was enough to prompt Napoli to splurge a club-record fee of €70 million on Osimhen in 2020, making him the most expensive African footballer.
A few months into the biggest move of his career, Osimhen’s injury problem popped up: he dislocated his shoulder while playing for the Super Eagles in an African Cup of Nations (AFCON) qualification game against Sierra Leone.
The injury sat him on the sidelines for two months. His problem compounded after he contracted COVID-19 following another visit to Nigeria. The season ended with a paltry ten goals, and questions were raised about the balance of his price tag and talent.
The following season, misfortune struck yet again. After scoring nine goals in the 14 games of the season, Osimhen suffered multiple facial fractures after a nasty clash of heads against Inter Milan in a Serie A match in November 2021.
From the impact, one of his eyes came out of its socket, according to the surgeons, and it required titanium plates and screws. Osimhen returned from the injury but was only able to add five goals to his total for the season.
Osimhen loudly sought an injury-free season and got just that in 2022 and 2023.
He formed an almost telepathic partnership with Georgia’s Khvicha Kvaratskhelia; they scythed through defences to the Serie A title and got Napoli to the quarter-final in the UEFA champions league.
A GIVING HAND
Osimhen with Baba Mosilimot and other former neighbours during his last visit to the community
Former neighbours sang the songs of Osimhen’s generosity since he struck stardom. The 24-year-old elevated his family and close friends away from the slum and constantly extended his generosity to former neighbours.
“He never forgot his root. If he were somebody else, with the level of hardship he faced while growing up, he would ignore everybody else after success. But he is not like that. He is generous and kind-hearted,” Baba Muslimot said.
Bello added that on each visit to Olusosun, Osimhen doled out money and aid to the community.
“After the stardom and all, he never belittled our little contributions to his life. Each time Victor returns to the community, he gives us money. He does not give us small money, huge figures,” she said.
A COMMUNITY EXCITED ABOUT ONE OF ITS OWN
A banner on Anisere street congratulating Osimhen on winning the Serie A league
In celebration of the Serie A win, banners and murals are flying over the walls of Olusosun in vicarious excitement for one of its very own.
“The entire people of Olusosun congratulate you on your Scudetto de Italia. God’s mercy will never depart from you. Congrats champion!!!” One banner read.
A giant-size mural of Osimhen in the Eagles regalia could be seen beside a placard of memorabilia made by the community elders. Above it sat an illustration of Osimhen’s boot with the tagline: “Olusosun to the world”.
Another banner reads: “Congratulations on your success. The golden boy of Olusosun. The Glory of Olusosun. More Wins, many more goals.”