As the 2023 Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) kicks off in Ivory Coast this weekend, few players will be under the spotlight as much as Victor Osimhen.
Despite only recently turning 25, the Nigeria striker is central to the Super Eagles’ hopes of a fourth continental triumph, a distinction he seeks to cap a steep rise in his profile over the last 18 months.
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Since breaking out as a star at the under-17 World Cup in 2015 by finishing as top scorer, Osimhen has borne comparisons with some of Nigeria’s greats, from Rashidi Yekini to Nwankwo Kanu.
In leading Napoli to title success in Serie A – the Italian top flight – last season and becoming the first Nigerian to win the Confederation of African Football (CAF) Player of the Year for 24 years, he has begun to justify some expectations. In December, Osimhen also secured top 12 finishes in the Ballon d’Or and FIFA The Best awards, cementing a reputation as one of the deadliest finishers in world football.
Still, the springy forward believes there is more to come.
“It is a huge honour to be compared to some of our legends,” he tells Al Jazeera. “It motivates me a lot. But what motivates me more is making my own way, achieving my own goals.”
Within football, there is little doubt that he is capable of doing precisely that. Emmanuel Adebayor and Didier Drogba, both former African Footballer of the Year winners and global footballing icons, have spoken highly of the Nigeria international, touting him for a move to the Premier League in England.
The transfer market agrees: interest in Osimhen was so fierce that Napoli moved, following protracted negotiations, to sign him on to an extension until 2026, keen to avoid the loss of their headline asset.
‘A lot of responsibility’
Having proven himself at club level, attention now shifts to him at AFCON, where Nigeria will face perhaps the strongest field – there are no debutants in this year’s edition – the competition has ever seen.
On paper, the Super Eagles have one of the best squads in Ivory Coast, a fact that, despite poor recent results and performances, is not lost on Osimhen.
“We have a very strong team, full of players with talent and experience,” he says. “All over Europe, we have players in all the top teams showing great form. We also get along really well: I’m friends personally with a lot of them. Our spirit is strong.”
Despite that strength in depth and team ethos, Nigeria go into the AFCON with a cloud hanging over them. Coach Jose Peseiro divides public opinion and has only won six of his 14 matches since taking charge of the team. The Super Eagles opened their 2026 World Cup qualifying campaign with consecutive draws against Lesotho and Zimbabwe, and there remains a lack of clarity over who the team’s starting goalkeeper is.
The onus, therefore, is on the attack: if Nigeria is to equal its championship-winning performances of 1980, 1994, and 2013, it will be on the back of Osimhen’s goals. Other attackers like Bayer Leverkusen’s Victor Boniface and Real Sociedad’s Umar Sadiq have withdrawn from the squad due to injuries.
Having missed out on the last edition of the competition two years prior, he feels the need to make up for lost time; for all his success at club level and in qualifying matches for the Super Eagles, Osimhen has yet to headline a major international tournament at senior level.
“Like I’ve said before, if I never win the AFCON for Nigeria, people will question me,” he says. “And it would be justified: there is a lot of responsibility on me. I know that, and I’m not running away from it.
Nigerian author and Super Eagles fan Joshua Omojuwa thinks he will deliver as expected: “Osimhen has proven to be a reliable striker through the years … if the team plays to enhance his strengths, he’d easily win top scorer of the tournament and possibly even lead Nigeria to the final.”
— 🇳🇬 Super Eagles (@NGSuperEagles) January 10, 2024
‘Desperate’ for the big prize
The Super Eagles kick off their campaign against Equatorial Guinea on January 14, and will then face the host nation Ivory Coast and underdogs Guinea-Bissau – to whom they lost in qualifying – on January 18 and 22 respectively.
Nigeria has not failed to progress from the group stage at an AFCON since 1982; it has also won four silver medals and eight bronze.
However, since 2019’s bronze medal finish, their fans have had little to smile about. Nevertheless, many Nigerians at home and in the diaspora are supporting the squad to perform well at the tournament, led by their star striker.
“There’s a lot of weight on his shoulders, no doubt, but the next few weeks will be his biggest moments in a Super Eagles shirt,” says Abuja-based Tunde Sawyerr, a longstanding Super Eagles fan. “His supporting cast and how much Peseiro is able to maximise Osimhen’s well-known abilities and deploy the most suitable tactics will make all the difference.”
To that, Osimhen says this crop of players is “desperate” for the big prize and will perform against all odds.
“We want to win every match, every trophy available, to make Nigerians proud of us again. Our coaches have some new ideas to help us get there, and if we work together as a team, anything is possible,” he told Al Jazeera.
“I want to win the AFCON with my country and write my own legacy. All the greats in Nigeria have a title to their name and to be mentioned in that space I must win it, too.”