This tale is about the old (ego, respect, pride) and the new (globalization, tone deafness and, yep, social media). Oh, and needless self-harm. It's also about a masked superhero whose face adorns a city, and a ruthless club owner of the sort who doesn't like to take orders (or admit fault). And it's yet another reminder that the world can be a very small place.
At 24 years of age, Victor Osimhen is arguably the greatest Napoli player since Diego Armando Maradona -- Gonzalo Higuain and Edinson Cavani may have a case, but few others. This is his fourth season at the club, and last year, he scored 31 goals in all competitions as he helped take Napoli to the Champions League quarterfinals and their first Serie A title in 33 years (only their third ever).
He earns around €9 million (just shy of $10m) a season and his contract expires in June 2025, which is why Napoli and Osimhen's agent spent much of the summer trying to hammer out an extension to avoid free agency, albeit without success.
The sticking point? According to multiple sources, they're not far apart on money; rather, it's the size of the release clause (likely north of nine figures) to insert in his contract.
Osimhen, as you'd expect, would like a lower one so that if a Real Madrid or a Manchester United come along, he won't be priced out. Napoli would rather not have one at all, but if it's a deal-breaker, they logically want a bigger one, not least because they paid €80m ($84m) to sign him from Lille in 2020. (However, that deal and Napoli president Aurelio De Laurentiis -- in a totally unrelated but equally odd tale -- are reportedly being investigated by prosecutors in Rome for "false accounting.")
That backdrop matters because it means Osimhen went into the season on edge without a new deal, and his nerves weren't helped when Napoli had a bumpy start to the season under new coach Rudi Garcia.
Things came to a head Sunday when Bologna and Napoli played out a scoreless draw. Osimhen, who had earlier hit the woodwork and missed a penalty, was substituted five minutes from time and replaced by another center-forward, Gio Simeone. As he approached the bench, a visibly frustrated Osimhen berated Garcia and loudly asked why they couldn't play with two strikers since they were trying to win. It was a very public act of insubordination from a star player, and Garcia acted the way under-fire coaches act in this situation: He pretended not to notice and did not react at all.
Osimhen later apologized to his coach and to his teammates, and everything seemed fine ... until Tuesday, when a pair of TikTok videos posted on the club's official account went viral. They've since been deleted, but posts such as this one, which combined them back-to-back, allow you to see what would so incense Osimhen and leave the rest of the world wondering what the club were thinking.
Both clips lasted less than 15 seconds. The first showed images of the striker with a coconut to the tune of a song with the lyrics: "I'm not a boy ... I'm not a girl ... I'm a coconut." The second had footage of Osimhen asking for and then missing the penalty against Bologna, with squeaky, sped-up audio of someone appealing for a penalty.
Roberto Calenda, Osimhen's agent, quickly issued a statement saying the videos were unacceptable, that they did "very serious damage to the player" and that he reserved the right to take legal action. Photos of him in a Napoli kit disappeared from his own social media accounts in protest.
Most of the world scratched their heads and wondered what on earth would prompt Napoli to troll their most popular player, let alone in a way that some saw as racist. The club said nothing, but an explanation did filter out, one that probably makes little sense to anyone over the age of 21: the coconut video (which appeared before the missed penalty) wasn't mean to be offensive, let alone racist. It's a meme (a trend) on TikTok, and Napoli's account had published a bunch of videos over time turning players into popular "TikTok trends," like this one featuring the departed Hirving "Chucky" Lozano. I don't get the appeal of this, and if you're not a TikTok user, you probably won't either. But to the audience Napoli's TikTok account was trying to reach, it evidently meant something different.
Napoli made a similar argument about the penalty miss video. "Sped-up audio" is, apparently "a thing" on TikTok. (Again, if you're a TikTok user, you already know this and I apologize, but many folks of legal drinking age have no idea about this stuff.)
It's an explanation, but not a justification, because you can't justify something so stupid. Juxtaposing an African man with a coconut (a racist term in some parts of the world) is bound to be taken the wrong way in many parts of the world by users unfamiliar with your medium. Giving your star player a squeaky voice and posting about his penalty miss even more so -- to most, it will seem as if you're cruelly mocking him, and it doesn't take a genius to understand this. And while maybe it went down better in the TikTok community, it was only going to be a matter of time before it made its way into the wider world.
Julien Laurens explains why Napoli's social media posts mocking Victor Osimhen couldn't have come at a worse time.
Club social media accounts are, essentially, marketing arms. Far from burnishing the club's image, these posts soiled it to the wider world, regardless of intent, and they angered Osimhen, which was the last thing the club needed. Still, the forward acted like a professional and a leader on Wednesday when called up for the game against Udinese. Fans greeted Osimhen with a standing ovation -- and boos for Garcia despite the fact that he's most definitely not in charge of the club's TikTok account -- and when Napoli were awarded a penalty in the first half, he let Piotr Zielinski take it. Not long thereafter, Osimhen scored to make it 2-0 and his celebration was muted, even after Mario Rui jumped into his arms.
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So what happens next?
On the surface, it's simple. The fans have done their part: While some may feel Osimhen overreacted, they showered him with love and affection when he stopped on the pitch. As for the club, the official apology came 48 hours later and it underscored how the club "never intended" to mock or offend him, while delivering a mini-lecture on how social media uses "expressive language" in a "light-hearted and playful manner." Nevertheless, it concludes, "If Victor was in any way offended, this was not at all in the club's intentions."
It feels a bit flat, particularly because they know full well that he was offended: otherwise, why would he get his representative to threaten legal action?
In some ways, more important than what the club does officially is how De Laurentiis approaches Osimhen privately. Most likely, he only found out about the videos after Osimhen did, but it's his club and it's his employees who published them. The buck stops with him, and it's critical that he makes Osimhen feel some level of empathy, otherwise the trust won't be repaired. And no matter how much the fans may love him -- and vice versa -- his boss, ultimately, is De Laurentiis. And if you don't trust your boss -- plus you have the luxury not to have to work for him in a few months' time -- why should you want to stick around?
As for Osimhen, he should move on if he feels ready to do so. If not forgive, at least forget. The best thing he can do for himself is continue to produce on the pitch. That will give him what he wants: options, particularly the option to run down his contract or extend it or do whatever he likes. Napoli fans made clear how they feel about him, and that matters too.
The problem is that this runs deep, far beyond the surface. There's pride involved, on all sides, and if you're honest with yourself, sometimes it can't be ignored. If the bitterness means Osimhen doesn't extend his deal, a January exit looms for him. After all, he'll have no trouble finding suitors: You won't find another center-forward better than him anywhere, not unless he's over 25 or named Erling Haaland.
That wouldn't just be a shame for Napoli and their fans; it would also be remembered as one of the most needlessly boneheaded acts of self-harm in recent history.