Victor Osimhen, the most recent African Player of the Year, is a star on a mission. His goal is to turn the anguish of Nigerian supporters into happiness by winning the Africa Cup of Nations.
The Napoli attacker became the first Nigerian winner since Nwankwo Kanu in 1999 when he won the African poll last month, finishing ahead of Moroccan Achraf Hakimi and Egyptian Mohamed Salah.
It was a prize for scoring regularly for the Super Eagles and assisting his team in winning their first Italian championship in thirty-three years.
The 24-year-old, who as a youngster made ends meet by selling newspapers and water bottles on the busy streets of Lagos, was not without sadness, though, despite his achievements.
The events of March 29, 2022, at the Moshood Abiola National Stadium in Abuja, the capital of Nigeria, have plagued Osimhen for a very long time.
Prior to that, Nigeria played a 0-0 draw in the first of two games against their longstanding regional rivals, Ghana, to determine whether the Black Stars of Super Eagles would go to the 2022 World Cup.
Expectations were high that the home team would make good use of their advantage and earn a spot in the finals in Qatar as Nigerian supporters packed to the national stadium.
However, those hopes were dashed when Ghana drew 1-1 to advance on away goals and deny Osimhen and his colleagues a chance to compete internationally.
“We could not have asked for more from our supporters in Abuja that night,” recalled Osimhen to reporters before leaving Italy to join the Cup of Nations squad.
‘Let them down’
“They roared us on from the first whistle to the last. The noise they created was deafening. but we let them down and that hurt. Nigerians deserved better.”
Now that the supporters’ sorrow is still present, Osimhen thinks he has the ideal solution: Nigeria needs to win the biannual Cup of Nations four times.
The Super Eagles defeated Algeria 3-0 at home in 1980 and went on to win 2-1 in Tunis in 1994 and 1-0 in Johannesburg in 2013 against Burkina Faso.
Nigeria has had a wild ride in the Cup of Nations since defeating Burkinabe; they finished third in 2019 and made it to the last 16 two years ago, but failed to qualify in 2015 and 2017.
Nigeria is anticipated to compete for first place alongside the hosts in the first round of Group A alongside Ivory Coast, Guinea-Bissau, and Equatorial Guinea.
Teams finishing first and second in each group are guaranteed knockout-stage places and the four best-ranked of the six third-placed sides also progress.
“We are capable of winning this tournament because the squad is packed with players who are performing exceptionally well for their European clubs,” says Osimhen.
“All of us are desperate to make up for failing to reach the 2022 World Cup. The only way we can achieve that goal is by wining the Cup of Nations.”
Ivory Coast, twice champions but flops when they previously hosted the tournament 40 years ago, have no shortage of stars and Algeria coach Djamel Belmadi says “they are the team to beat”.
“We will enjoy the support of the entire Ivory Coast nation, which is an incredible asset to have,” says Ivory Coast coach Jean-Louis Gasset.
Workmanlike Equatorial Guinea have reached the knockout stage in all three previous appearances while Guinea-Bissau, who won a 2024 qualifier in Nigeria, are seeking a first finals victory.