It’s extremely rare for a football player to become immortal. It takes next level skill, enduring patience, and achieving feats some may deem impossible. If fewer than 1% of academy players turn professional, the select group of players who write their name into the history books of the beautiful game are all the more impressive.
Legends should be put on a pedestal, especially in their own time.
Victor Osimhen is one player who’s scaled such heights for his club. With little more than 100 games played for Napoli, he’ll always be known as one of the most important players in his team’s history. The Lagos-born 24-year-old spread his Super Eagle wings in Serie A and helped his side fly to the summit of Italian football for the first time in 33 years.
26 goals in Serie A secured Napoli their first scudetto since the days of Diego Maradona. He took his club to rarified air that not even iconic players like Cavani, Higuaín or Hamšík could match in recent history. He had the mentality and ability to help his team take that hardest final step.
The scenes that followed their title win made headlines around the world. One of the most passionate cities on the planet came out in force to celebrate their heroes. Now wearing a protective mask, posters of Vic O’s Zorro-like image covered the streets of Naples. People dyed their hair gold in tribute to their shining star.
From the club’s perspective, you think Victor Osimhen would be immortalised forever?
“This week, it became clear how fragile success can be for a Black man in Italy.”
This week, it became clear how far that is from the truth and how fragile success can be for a Black man in Italy. Someone who should be hailed by the club is being mocked by it. Napoli’s TikTok posted two videos this week that undermined Osimhen. The first was a jab at his recent penalty miss, the second mocked his appearance and repeatedly called him a “coconut”.
No one needs to be told about the racial connotations that have long-been associated with an insult like that. Victor’s own club are dehumanising someone who should be one of their own. You don’t need to be a legend to be respected, but if even those who achieve so much are treated with such little regard, what does that say about how they view the rest of us?
Victor’s team have since responded and are looking to take legal action, but this incident is an all too familiar story in Italian football. You only have to look at the treatment of Romelu Lukaku last season for evidence of how much racism still exists at the highest levels of the game.
Rewind a bit further back, and you see a pattern of abuse against Black Italians like Mario Balotelli and Moise Kean, degraded and abused by their own countrymen and women. Paul Pogba also spoke about facing monkey noises while playing for Juventus in 2013.
Look at that line up. A World Cup winner, a Serie A champion, a national hero, and a talented young player on the come up. All of whom had their achievements and character disregarded and dehumanised on a major scale. Many African nationals have historically migrated to Italy and you have to question how they feel when they see such instances.
If the initial act of offence hurts, the reaction to racism from fans, clubs and teammates often cuts deeper. Whether that’s Napoli fans in comments calling Victor “ungrateful” for what the club has done for him, or whether it’s Bonucci telling Lukaku he’s to blame for fans abusing him on pitch – Italian football still doesn’t take racism seriously enough.
We’re looking at a situation that needs systemic and societal change. Bigger than football, bigger than fandom.
Consider the emotions of Nigerians and Africans who watched one of their own take on the world and succeed. For goodwill to be broken at the click of a finger is demoralising and hurtful beyond words. Football should inspire and create positive change, but this shows us that in some cases nothing ever changes.
Victor’s response in holding the club accountable and seeking justice should be respected. Fighting back against discrimination can be an uncomfortable and painful thing for a victim to do, but his strength will inspire generations to know that we do have the power to call out abuse when we see it. No one should tolerate discrimination.
Whilst Victor Osimhen’s mistreatment is a familiar story, we need to start writing new chapters.