Victor Osimhen one-man wrecking ball for Nigeria Super Eagles in Afcon qualifying
Not since Obafemi Martins’ emergence in 2003 have Nigerians been so jazzed up about a starting striker to lead the Super Eagles.
Unlike Martins, who took some convincing before he left the comfort of Inter Milan and the San Siro in Italy to suit up for Nigeria, Victor Osimhen developed through the cadet ranks with not even the slightest doubt about whether or not he would pick up the mantle.
Osimhen has been hailed the new great hope of Nigerian football since scoring 10 goals in nine games for the national under-17 side, That impression has been further cemented by 19 goals in 34 games for Charleroi, in Belgium, and the strikers’ blazing start to life at Lille in France, where he has scored seven goals in nine league games. Not to mention his hat-trick for Nigeria Under-23 in qualifying for the 2019 Afcon tournament. It was a matter of when, not if, be burst out for the senior Nigeria side.
Odion Ighalo’s retirement from international football after Nigeria had won the bronze medal at the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations in Egypt provided the perfect opportunity for Osimhen to step into the role and prove himself.
The youngster he was on target in his first game as lead striker, converting a penalty in the post-Afcon friendly against Ukraine. He did not score in the next game, against Brazil, but was involved in almost all the good things the Super Eagles did in the attacking third, and then against Benin he again calmly dispatched a penalty to draw his team level after the Squirrels had taken a shock early lead.
The breakthrough was coming; on Sunday, it finally arrived.
Osimhen, 20, turned himself into a one-man wrecking ball, despite the close attentions of a Lesotho double-team, setting up two goals and helping himself to another two as the Super Eagles, for the second time in as many games, came from a goal behind to win. This time, they won more convincingly than they had done at home a few days ago against Benin Republic.
Like Osimhen himself, the performance was not so much flamboyant as calmly efficient. The striker scored his second goal after he had taken a knock, and was still limping. And that is what makes him so impressive. And so ominous for the opposition.
In previous years, and even early in Gernot Rohr’s tenure as Super Eagles coach, a one-goal deficit would have been a recipe for falling to panic stations, as happened at home against South Africa in qualifying for the 2019 Afcon tournament in Egypt — in which game they went on to lose 2-0.
In this game against Lesotho — as in the Benin game — they simply seemed to reset to zero and stuck to the game plan
“I was impressed with the way we handled it,” defender and assistant captain William Troost-Ekong told ESPN.
“Both times we stayed calm.
“The boys all have experience now, and I think we believe in our own quality.”
No one epitomized calmness and quality more than Osimhen, and Rohr deserves credit for the manner in which he has helped the striker to become this deadly force of nature.
Right at the start of Rohr’s tenure, the German had already identified Osimhen as a player to lead the Super Eagles’ attack for the future as part of his broad objective of lowering the average age of the team and developing a core to last at least the next decade.
This forward thinking also includes the likes of right-back Musa Mohammed (whose career has been derailed by injury for now), Chidozie Awaziem, Samuel Chukwueze, Samuel Kalu, Francis Uzoho, and others.
So, even when the youngster was barely getting games and not scoring at Wolfsburg in Germany, Rohr constantly called him up to the national team, allowing him time to integrate into the squad and learn from senior players such as Ighalo
“Yes, I took him already in my first match, remember,” Rohr said to ESPN.
“Everybody was surprised. He was 17 when I selected him in August 2016.
“He was in Germany and unlucky with injury, and then he fought very well to come back.
“And now I have very good information on him from Lille. He is progressing, and also I saw him progressing for seven weeks before and during the Afcon. Also, we had Ighalo, so he could not play so much, but then in the last match he did well and he showed all the progress he did.
“He is working well. There is no secret. When you work well and you have the talent and you stay humble, you can succeed and he can even improve because he is still very young.”
Ighalo agrees with Rohr, pointing out how he had also helped the youngster
“I always told him that he has everything it takes to lead this attack, but it all depends on him,” Ighalo told ESPN after the game against Lesotho.
“I told him he has to keep working hard, stay humble and always be ready to learn, and above all not to get carried away with success or hype but just to keep improving.”
Osimhen has taken those lessons to heart, enough that he was ready to step into the breach on Ighalo’s departure.
As a consequence, he is already looking like a veteran even with just nine caps under his belt; after Sunday’s game, his nine appearances have already yielded four goals.
Extrapolating from his production at cadet level, Osimhen could easily crack Rashidi Yekini’s 37-goal mark as the Super Eagles’ leading scorer — amd do so in less time than it took the late great legend.
There is still some way to go, however.
Osimhen is not the first player to be crowned as the next Yekini. Chrisantus Macauley, Kelechi Iheanacho, Isaac Success and Taiwo Awoniyi have all had their turn being crowned as the future of Nigerian football.
Iheanacho aside, none has lived up to the early hype; and the jury is still out on both Iheanacho and Awoniyi.
Yet, Osimhen appears to have been cut out of a different mould and is already fulfilling his promise.
Early days yet, but Rohr’s faith, it seems, is being sumptuously rewarded, and the coach should get the pat on the back.