Dreams and Nightmares: The Poetry of Victor Osimhen & The Crassness of Commerce

Miguelito explores the idea that the dialogue surrounding football players' salaries is becoming more of a talking point than their actual play, with Italian striker Victor Osimhen as a prime example.
By    May 18, 2023

Image via Victor Osimhen/Instagram

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Miguelito looked away during the Fast X commercial to preserve the cinematic viewing experience.

Eduardo Galeano was prescient in more than one field. The late Uruguayan journalist is most famous for his book Open Veins of Latin America—an authoritative history of the continent’s plundering—and his activism against the twentieth century’s litany of right-wing dictatorships propped up throughout the region. He was also a lover of football and footballers, a career to which he aspired but his clumsiness prevented. Those deficiencies on the field didn’t hinder the fluidity and crispness of his exposition. He possessed the ability to see beyond the decorative stagings of the world to expose its inner workings and dialectics. In 1995, he published Football in Sun and Shadow, a collection of his writings on the sport that touches on individual feats of greatness, the sports enmeshment with advertising—and by extension politics—and an oral history of World Cups seen from his television. Baudrillard didn’t need more than CNN to say what he wanted about the Gulf War. Galeano did it better with the sports feed.

In subsequent editions of Football in Sun and Shadow, Galeano updated the text with his thoughts on World Cups that came after the original publication. One of the sections for the 1998 Tournament is titled “Prices” and opens with the line, “At the end of the century, soccer reporters write less about players’ abilities and more about the prices they command.” He was fond of these loathsomely correct predictions that can turn lovers of worldies and elasticos into cynics.

We’ve blown past the end of the 20th century and collapsed deeper into Galeano’s nightmare. You could choose from dozens of players in the last two decades, but the discourse around Napoli’s Victor Osimhen is an egregious proof of Galeano’s claim. The 24-year-old Nigerian striker has been methodical and poetic this season for the Italian side. His 28 goals across competitions—23 of which came in Serie A, where he leads all scoring—propelled Napoli on their run to the quarter-finals of the Champions League and, most importantly, allowed them to clinch this season’s Scudetto – only the team’s third Italian league title an

d the first without the help of football’s prime iconoclast Diego Maradona.

Discussions around Osimhen often fail to mention particularities of his game or gloss over them to get to the real topics: Which clubs can afford him? Which of those clubs will buy him? How many millions for the transfer fee? Will it be worth it? Maybe some talk about if he can succeed in the Premier League? You can figure out he’s had an exceptional season if he’s generating this talk. But, in the discourse about him, this is only tangential to his role as an asset. He’s spoken of like a manipulable token that exists to make spreadsheets more presentable in negotiations, a simple garnish to the robust cocktails that are the world’s largest clubs and has no real value on his own.

Here’s a taste of headlines from the past few weeks: “Man United, Bayern Munich or PSG? Victor Osimhen’s transfer preference…” just three days before Napoli even clenched the Serie A title; SoccerNet seems to think that disagreements between Paris Saint-Germain’s owners and sporting director over adding Osimhen are more pressing (or ‘true’) than his on-field talent; and who wasn’t in awe at the £133 million figure derived by Football365—before quoting a pundit who doesn’t think he’s worth it. The Daily Mail might have been the most honest though with an article referring to Osimhen as ‘property’ in the headline. Why spend time discussing his contributions to Napoli, how he fits into their system or how it works with his idiosyncrasies when all those details will just be absorbed into an already established property worth billions? There’s also the implication tucked behind incessant transfer speculation that the subject isn’t vindicated as a baller unless they’re christened by an elect club. And that implication seems to have more bite if said clubs receive the spoils of imperial plunder, however indirectly.

Zeroing in on his actual footballing ability gives a more accurate depiction of who Victor Osimhen is: a striker with weightless leaping ability, compact control and precise, geometrically improbable finishes that have made him a scourge inside the box. Napoli have scored more headers than any European team in the top five leagues and you hold your breath at each of their corner kicks, waiting to see Osimhen’s blonde streak reach up to guide the ball.

In the same way that Ja Morant and Anthony Edwards stretch the limits of self-contained propulsion, so does Osimhen. These soaring comrades just have to use different extremities to move crowds to disbelief. Staying in the realm of NBA comparisons, Victor Osimhen has become known for the black face mask he always wears on field. It’s similar to the ones worn by Lebron James and Joel Embiid in the last decade. Osimhen’s equipment is slimmer though—only shielding around the eyes and bridge of the nose—and less reminiscent of a cenobite. He suffered multiple face fractures after a head-to-head collision in late 2021, started wearing the mask when he returned to the pitch and has kept the disguise long after the bones healed. After every goal he rips the covering off to prove it was scored by a mortal like you. It’s strange to imagine his flashes of brilliance with a bare face.

He’s had plenty of occasions to show his face this season too. This chest-knee control into a right-footed volley is a personal favorite. Whether or not he meant to bring the ball to the ground first and had to settle for the second touch off his knee doesn’t matter. It takes the minutiae of watchmakers to execute those touches and drill it into the top of the net with two defenders encircling him. Compared to other world class strikers, he has a nimbler elusiveness. He seems to discover new ways to wiggle out of a defense every time the ball is clipped in behind him. He doesn’t perforate defenses head-on in the drillbit style of Manchester City’s Erling Haaland. Osimhen prefers to control the space on every axis he creates, whether in runs or body feints or at the apex of a set piece.

His most important goal of this season came on May 4th, when Napoli traveled to Udinese to secure the title. They missed a chance to put the race to bed the previous weekend and settled for a draw at Salernitana. Every header from Osimhen was pushed out by goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa, who remains Mexico’s patron saint of the six-yard box late into his thirties. An equalizer from Salernitana in the 84th minute forced the city to delay the celebration. Hundreds of already-lit azure flares had to be extinguished. Still, they only needed a draw against Udinese to wrap up this Serie A campaign and, by order of the fates, Osimhen had to be the one that delivered the climactic goal.

Napoli were almost forced to wait again though. Udinese came out screaming and were up 1-0 in the fifteenth minute after Napoli gave Sandi Lovric too much space between the midfield and backline. The Blues had to dig to find the form that allowed them to cruise through Serie A most of the season. Their best chance of the match came just a few minutes after halftime. Udinese concede a corner and, after a few bounces, the ball glides across the goal’s mouth to the feet of Khvicha Kvaratskhelia, one of the many (now) integral pieces to this Napoli side. Kvaratskhelia’s attempt is punched away from goal and Osimhen, with keen striker’s instinct, is standing in the dead center of the box. From his composure, you would think he was standing in The Maradona by himself. He doesn’t have to smash the shot. All that’s needed is turning the sting of the goalie’s block against him. A simple put-back from the side of his right foot, a subdued follow-through, and the fickle sphere agreed to settle in the top left corner. Basking in these realities and moments that unite entire regions is a more compelling exercise than crackpot financial speculation and treating athletes in the same manner as its craven technocrats.

Focusing on Osimhen as an asset reduces the beautiful intangibles and metamorphoses of sport to a ghoulish Monopoly game between reps of clubs owned by heirs of the Walmart fortune and spook-adjacent former heads of the Harbinger Group. It also neglects to consider one of the things that makes Osimhen, or any footballer, great; the dialectic between teammates. There are ten other personalities and conditions to blend with that work to form something new, something we now call the ‘22-’23 Napoli team. I’ve mentioned Kvaratskhelia briefly but there are many other Napoli ballers, such as Lobotka, Zielinski, Di Lorenzo and Kim, worthy of a thousand words each. This wouldn’t be unfathomable in a thriving media ecosystem that’s organized to care for its subjects. These few for Victor Osimhen will have to suffice until then.

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