After winning Italy’s Serie A with Napoli, Victor Osimhen has cemented his claim to being Africa’s biggest footballing icon. But is the trend of individual stardom good for sports and politics?

Napoli's Fuorigrotta neighborhood with Stadio Diego Armando Maradona. Image via Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0.

In the aftermath of SSC Napoli’s league victory, Nigerians descended on the official Serie A Twitter account to protest what they considered to be an unfair (and “racist”) attempt to acknowledge someone other than Victor Osimhen as the hero of the club’s successful campaign. And, while other players no doubt played a part in a team’s success, few would argue against Osimhen, born in Lagos, being the standout star of Napoli this season. His composure in front of goal and his dynamic presence leading the line has earned him accolades and has unified a country desperately in need of a rallying point after a contentious election cycle.

However, this adulation of Osimhen provides us with another nexus between football and politics: a growing fixation on an individual hero rather than an appreciation of the collective effort. We saw it as Nigerians went to the polls in February and March (and April in two cases) to vote for a new president and state governors, and we can see it as Osimhen is fast becoming the latest icon in town. But an important question is if this trend is helpful or harmful to both sports and politics.

For a team sport, football has recently been dominated by individual narratives, however this is a relatively new development, with notable exceptions in Pele and Maradona (the latter also credited with leading Napoli to its previous two Serie A titles). Historically, fans supported clubs and teams and these levels of devotion were often very strong and family rooted. People would have lived in the areas that birthed these clubs and would proudly boast of family associations or community connections to the team. These experiences were why the best players in the world did not necessarily have to play in Europe to earn the adoration of their fans. It meant that players came and left, but no one was bigger than the club.

This sentiment appears to hold less weight in the modern era. Individual footballers can boast of larger fanbases than some clubs, with their signing expectedly gaining fans for their new clubs. There is a growing sense of personalities trumping the collective patronage. It can be disconcerting and occasionally downright divisive.

After Nigeria’s record-breaking fifth World U-17 title in Chile, Osimhen’s individual promise was evident. His career trajectory from a Wolfsburg player on loan to Chaleroi in Belgium, to Napoli’s dangerman and a contender for Serie A capocannoniere is an inspiration to millions in a country with high unemployment rate, and where creative endeavors such as the arts and sports often stand out as the only remaining engines of economic dynamism and national hope.

Perhaps a small level of irony is that despite the pride with which Nigerians engage with celebrations of his achievement, Osimhen has not had the best engagement with the Nigerian national team. In 2021, there was some misplaced criticism after he was unable to take part in that year’s Africa Cup of Nations following a facial surgery. In 2022, despite his best efforts, he was a prominent member of the squad that failed to qualify for the World Cup at the Abuja Stadium and saw some question his commitment when compared to his club form. In March 2023, he returned to the Abuja Stadium with the Super Eagles and lost 0-1 to Guinea Bissau as part of 2024 African Cup of Nations qualifiers—failing to score during the double header despite his rich form for his club. However, it has been a fairly contentious time for Nigerians and an ambassador performing well abroad can also play a small part in distracting citizens from the challenges domestically. His standing within football also mirrors how Nigeria’s politics has similarly become a more individual engagement.

As with presidential politics globally, in Nigeria there is a growing concentration on the presidential candidate with their various camps, and a tendency to isolate their personas from their parties. Some have pointed out the ironies of wealthy candidates, such as Peter Obi of the Labour Party and President-Elect Bola Tinubu of the All Progressives Congress, running on the platforms of parties largely associated with welfarist and socialist policies. Furthermore, with a culture of party defections and cross-carpeting there is little essence of a party remaining, with few actually sharing ideology-based manifestos during the campaign cycle.

There is an argument that current politics might be showing us the future of football. After all, discussions around confused political party ideologies can be compared to clubs having muddled transfer strategies and making disjointed team signings. Increasingly, clubs are now run as businesses and the star personalities that they appear to revolve around play a big role in sponsorship deals. Yet, there are still clear areas where consensus arrangements by collective groups are necessary for any political structure to function. For all of Bola Tinubu’s individual nous and appeal, a candidate with his political baggage and challenges could not have succeeded in Nigeria if he wasn’t running as the candidate of a major party. Similarly, the relatively sole appeal of Peter Obi was not replicated in the down-ballot elections in states that he carried during his presidential race, showing the need for a more collective effort.

Even among the collective, there are always leaders and standout performers. For club and, increasingly for country, Victor Osimhen is fast assuming this role. The challenge comes with the added responsibility of embodying the hopes and aspirations of fans and supporters. This means different things in the two areas. For Naples, Osimhen will no doubt become a symbol for reframing immigrant narratives, while for Nigeria he will join a group of people tasked with playing a unifying role at a time of immense division.

For a watchful and hopeful country, believing in Osimhen today might now be part of the optimism that involves believing in a Nigeria tomorrow.

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