The red-hot striker was only moments away from being cut during screening for the Nigeria U17 national team, but fortune smiled on him. He has become one of the deadliest forwards in world football
There are moments in life that take one’s breath away. For coach Emmanuel Amuneke, it was not a remarkable moment when he first laid his eyes on Victor Osimhen, the footballer that has become one of the most talked-about in global football.
Amuneke, the former Nigeria winger and African Player of the Year in 1994, was saddled with seeing thousands of players as he prepared to form a cadet team for Nigeria in 2014.
He had two big tournaments he wanted to qualify for, the African U17 Championship in Niger and the FIFA U17 World Cup in Chile. He was assistant to head coach Manu Garba when the team won the U17 World Cup in the United Arab Emirates in 2013.
So there was a lot of pressure and a lot to prove that he could succeed as head coach after an illustrious career where he scored winning goals in the 1994 Africa Cup of Nations final against Zambia and the 1996 Olympic Games final against Argentina.
He brought in a philosophy of free-flowing passing football, a la Barcelona where he was a winger under Bobby Robson.
But first, he needed to find a group of players capable of being moulded into his vision and become the best team in the world.
More than 4000 talented players from all over the country thronged the pitch of the FIFA Goal Project in Abuja, Nigeria’s political capital, looking for a chance to make it into the team.
Amuneke found a way to see many of them play. He would group the boys into teams with a 30-minute time limit.
It was when Osimhen first came on his radar. The young lad was brought from Lagos by his agent.
“What impressed me was his desire, his hunger to succeed,” Amuneke told Soccernet.ng about his early encounter with Osimhen.
“At the screening, you have a lot of people. In a day, you can have 2000 players who all want to play for the national team. But there are certain qualities that you’re looking at.
“You’re not asking them about the tactical aspect of the game or even the physical aspect of the game because that can be worked on as the camp progresses.
“You’re looking at the intelligence of the player, the way he handles the ball, the way he releases the ball and the aggressiveness in him.”
Osimhen came to the screening with a street toughness from a difficult upbringing. He was the last of six children, and his mother had died. Left with a father that lost his job soon after his mother’s passing, Victor was left to fend for himself most of the time.
He sold sachet water in traffic and played football in the evenings. He was a brilliant student, and his father hoped he would become a medical doctor, but he had an early conviction that football was going to be his ticket out of the Olusosun slum, where the overpowering stench of Lagos’ largest landfill enveloped the community.
“I think (for) Victor, probably because of the early life that he spent when he was young, that really helped him.
“He’s someone that wanted to succeed. Even when you look at him today with Napoli, he’s somebody that doesn’t like to lose. He wants to win always, and I think that is one quality that singled Victor out,” Amuneke said.
The coach was impressed by his six-foot frame and his speed as much as by his hunger. But it could have all gone differently.
The process of screening players at the open day meant some of them did not get to show their best qualities in the few minutes that the coach had to see them before moving on to another group. And Osimhen’s story could have been lost.
“When I saw him in the first game because there were a lot of people, there was nothing much in his group. It can happen, you can be a good player, but you find yourself with a group, maybe they’re not helping you as a striker, it will make you look as if you’re not good,” Amuneke explained.
“Each game was 30 minutes. After 15 minutes of watching the game, I use the next 15 minutes to arrange the next group of players that will come up as quick as possible.
“After their game, based on what I had seen in the first 15 minutes, I was not interested in that group.
“But my assistants came to me. That’s why you have an assistant. They said, ‘Coach, there’s one player there.’ I said I didn’t see much but let him remain and let’s see him again.
“The next game, I put him in and then I took my time to watch him. Like I said, I like his hunger, I like the desire, he wants to win, and I am happy that Victor is doing well today,” said Amuneke.
Osimhen went on to become the fulcrum of Amuneke’s attack at the tournaments in Niger and Chile. In South America, he set the record of 10 goals at the U17 World Cup to lead Nigeria to a fifth title.
Victor Osimhen for Nigeria. STARBOY
Liberia vs Nigeria later today pic.twitter.com/vvJGoXUvOz
— wyngback.com (@wyngback) November 13, 2021
He moved to German side Wolfsburg where he struggled to fit in before a loan move to Charleroi and Lille followed. And then he ended up in Napoli in an African record transfer.
Osimhen has become the leading marksman for the Super Eagles and has scored ten goals in 19 games so far, including four in six games of the 2022 FIFA World Cup qualifying series.
“It is very difficult to see a very tall player that can combine very good techniques and a very good definition in terms of goalscoring. Victor is a complete player, he can play with the head, he can play with the feet, he can run, he can defend.
“Although things didn’t start very well in terms of his movement to Wolfsburg, he’s somebody that wants to succeed.”
He’s not afraid of the challenges that are coming to him,” concluded Amuneke, glad that he gave the boy a second opportunity on a crowded day not so long ago.