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Napoli's new Cavani? Osimhen becoming an icon at Stadio Diego Armando Maradona

12:30 PM IST 24/10/21
Victor Osimhen Edinson Cavani Didier Drogba Napoli GFX
The southern Italian city's blossoming love for the free-scoring Nigeria international extends far beyond his natural footballing ability

Victor Osimhen had his doubts about moving to Napoli in 2020, not least because of Italy's issues with racism, so the Nigerian spoke to defender Kalidou Koulibaly. 

The Senegal international admitted that he had suffered "the bitterness of racist insults" throughout his time in Serie A but he told Osimhen that he wouldn't encounter any problems in Naples.

That hasn't proven entirely correct. 

Only this week, while discussing Osimhen's potential availability for Thursday's Europa League clash with Legia Warsaw, Napoli coach Luciano Spalletti caused controversy by arguing that "players of colour" recover in a shorter period of time from muscle fatigue than some of their team-mates for genetic reasons.

There was some debate over whether the Tuscan's argument was racist. Nearly everyone agreed that it was, at the very least, painfully and unhelpfully misguided.

Still, while Naples may be a city beset by socio-economic issues, the vast majority of its inhabitants abhor ignorance and prejudice, primarily because they have had to deal with it for years. 

Territorialism remains a stain on Italian society, with the people of the south often looked down upon by those from the richer, more developed north. So, players of colour sporting Napoli jerseys are often targeted by an ignorant few that can still be found in Serie A stadia.

It was sadly unsurprising, then, that Osimhen, Koulibaly and Napoli's Cameroon international Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa were all racially abused during the 2-1 win over Fiorentina at the Stadio Artemio Franchi at the start of the month.

Koulibaly was deeply affected by the horrific nature of the insults, later admitting that he did not sleep for two days after the incident, while Osimhen made a desperate plea for an end to such disgraceful behaviour.

"Speak to your kids, your parents," Osimhen wrote on Twitter afterwards. "Make them understand how disgusting it is to hate an individual because of the colour of their skin. No to racism."

However, while Osimhen's fears about plying his trade in Italy have proven depressingly well-founded, Koulibaly was at least right about the reception his fellow African would receive in Naples itself. 

Right now, there is no more popular player at the Stadio Diego Armando Maradona. And that's not just because, right now, there is no better player in Serie A. 

Of course, one could argue that Neapolitans were always likely to immediately take to Osimhen. Part of Maradona's enduring appeal, for example, lies in the belief that he was one of them. He may have been born in Buenos Aires but he came from the streets. He knew what it was to suffer. 

Nobody is saying that Osimhen is the second coming of San Diego but he certainly knows all about hardship. As he once told France Football, "Part of my life has been a struggle to survive."

This is a young man who was raised in abject poverty in Lagos. His mother died when he was still a kid – he doesn't even remember the year – and his father lost his job just three months later. He used to clean his landlord's gutters and sell bottled water in the middle of traffic to try to help his family make ends meet.

When he says that becoming a footballer was "a childhood dream that started in the slums", he isn't exaggerating. And yet, in spite of all of this, he retains the most remarkable outlook on his upbringing.

"I feel like these struggles helped me in life," he explained in a YouTube interview with Nigeria team-mate William Paul Troost-Ekong. "I am grateful for where I am now because of what I’ve been through. It shaped me into the man I am."

And also the player he is today.

Osimhen has clearly been blessed with outstanding natural ability but when he received a standing ovation from the Napoli fans after being withdrawn 15 minutes from the end of last month's win over Cagliari, club legend Ciro Ferrara was correct when he pointed out that the home crowd were lauding the Super Eagles striker as much for his attitude as his talent. 

After all, not everything has gone according to plan since Napoli paid an eyebrow-raising €70 million (£59m/$81.5m) million fee for Osimhen in the summer of 2020. 

He has been unlucky with injury and illness but he has also made mistakes. He was even sent off in the opening game of the current campaign, for a tame but senseless swipe at Venezia defender Daan Heymans. 

However, throughout out it all, he has always demonstrated not only an electrifying mix of pace and skill, but also a dogged determination to prove his worth to both the club and its supporters.

"They trust me and stood by me through the tough start last season," he recently told BBC Sport Africa. "The love I enjoy is massive – the club, the city, the fans and everyone connected to Napoli makes me fly."

And he really is flying right now, almost literally.

Last weekend, he scored a towering headed winner against Torino that Antonio Cassano felt deserved even more praise than it received.

"When Ronaldo did that, everyone eulogised him and they put how many metres and centimetres he'd jumped," the former Italy international told BoboTV. "But Osimhen went above the crossbar and scored a crazy header... that reminded me of those that (Didier) Drogba used to score."

Osimhen would have loved that comparison, given he grew up idolising the Ivorian. When Lille played at Stamford Bridge last December, he even called all of his friends on a video chat beforehand to show them that he was walking on the same "grass where my idol scored so many goals".

In truth, his playing style and physique are probably more similar to a former Napoli icon, Edinson Cavani, but Osimhen has the potential to become whatever kind of attacker he wants to be.

The likes of Fabio Capello and Christian Vieri have repeatedly pointed out that while he still has plenty to work on, particularly in terms of his finishing and hold-up play with the ball at his feet, there is no limit to what he can achieve.

It was also Vieiri who correctly predicted before the season began that Osimhen would improve rapidly under Spalletti, who has nothing but love for the forward: "He can do everything. He's a really great professional and he's a very sweet kid who listens to everyone."

Already this season, Osimhen has netted nine times in 10 appearances in all competitions, with his five strikes in his last five Serie A outings a big reason why Napoli are presently top of the table with eight wins from eight games.

This weekend, the Partenopei will put their unbeaten run on the line again at the Stadio Olimpico, where they will face Roma, who are coming off the back of a humiliating 6-1 loss at Bodo/Glimt in midweek. 

Giallorossi coach Jose Mourinho is obviously renowned for his defensive masterplans but stopping Osimhen is easier said than done right now.

For example, Cagliari boss Walter Mazzarri felt he had done an excellent job of shutting down free-scoring Napoli on matchday six yet the Sardinians still came out on the wrong side of a 2-0 scoreline. Why? Because his players couldn't contain Osimhen.

“He is phenomenal," the former Napoli boss told DAZN, "because he runs alone at five players and still gets through."

Essentially, Osimhen is still clearing every hurdle placed in his path. It really is no wonder, then, that they love him at the Stadio Diego Armando Maradona. 

The team's 100 per cent record may well go soon enough but Osimhen and Naples will remain perfect for one another.