At the end of Chelsea’s win over Leicester City, Victor Moses skipped through the visiting defence to add a third goal. Following a smart move between N’Golo Kante and Nathaniel Chalobah, the Nigerian winger found himself beyond the covering centre-backs and buried his shot beyond Kasper Schmeichel. The game had been won for a long time and it didn’t represent any personal milestone for Moses, but it capped a fine performance; for the first time in years, he had looked like an integral role player at Chelsea – not a third substitute, but a real component with a definitive tactical role. Having spent the last three successive seasons on-loan and having made just over 50 appearances for his contracted club since 2012, Moses has now taken part in seven of Antonio Conte’s first eight Premier League games.
His story is under-told. In fact, in a 2015 New Statesman article decrying working-class access to certain professions, he was actually used as an example of someone who had risen to the top of his industry by virtue of attending a public school. It was quarter-truth at best and an assumption massaged to suit a point owed a better example: Moses was educated at Whitgift, an exclusive London independent school with decadent facilities, but his journey there was truly harrowing.
Moses was born in Lagos in 1990 to Christian parents. Orphaned in 2002 after his mother and father were murdered in religious riots in Kaduna, he sought asylum in England and was placed into foster care. In 2012, in an interview with Moses, The Guardian’s Dave Hytner recounted the future Chelsea winger’s journey from damaged child who had to be hidden for his own protection, to displaced youth in a foreign country, and finally to public schoolboy. Football would change his life and his rise from the local parks to Crystal Palace’s patronage is periodically retold, but the human voyage he endured is less frequently mentioned and far more extraordinary. He has travelled a long way, figuratively and literally.
The anecdotes that exist from his early years in this country are very telling. There are stories of crippling shyness and of a child so distanced from his comfort zone that he was practically mute; according to those who encountered him, he exhibited all the emotional scars expected in a young man who had endured a terrible trauma.
Public school is an unforgiving world, full of privilege and entitlement. It is a very white, very upper-middle class environment in which difference is often persecuted and global perspective is generally at a minimum. Moses is understandably reluctant to talk about his formative years, but it can be assumed that the transition from asylum seeker to private schooling was less than easy, irrespective of the opportunities it provided.
Professional football is littered with tales of sacrifice. Every famous player’s autobiography has a story of a mother who was willing to drive them to training and a father who worked hard to buy boots and shin pads. In Moses’ case, it’s a more genuine hardship with thick seams of tragedy and perseverance and, also, of a great bravery that makes him a naturally empathetic figure.
Beyond football’s normal tribalism, he’s easy to root for. Even prior to this season he was a successful professional athlete, but watching him start for one of the biggest sides in the country, having been jilted by the same club for three successive years, provokes something which transcends loyalties.
But there’s another layer to the story, one commonly lost to British insularity. In a 2013 article from the Peoples’ Daily website, Nigerian writer Ayodele Samuel spoke of Moses’ value as a cultural figure. Referencing the player’s decision to represent his country of birth rather than his adopted home, Samuel wrote:
“When the call to serve his fatherland came, Moses dumped England and embraced Nigeria. That is patriotism! Today, we see a Victor Moses bringing joy to every Nigerian.”
It’s impossible to truly appreciate what that meant. In England, Moses’ international eligibility was discussed exclusively in terms of his footballing value and its human aspect was ignored – by me, by you, by everyone. In this country, we’ve had our senses tuned exclusively to sport’s literal significance.
“He never gave up on his country. He persevered. That is purpose!”
It’s very affecting. Had Moses decided to represent England, it would have been easy to justify. Given what had happened in his childhood and that he had, quite literally, had to escape the country for his own safety, the temptation never to return must have been overwhelming. Psychologically, it would surely have been far easier to close that chapter of his life for good and focus only the future.
He didn’t. Having progressed through the England U16, u17, u19, u20 and U21 age groups, his application for a change of nationality was approved by FIFA in late 2011 and he made his full Nigerian debut in 2012. It was a decision partly motivated by lesser competition, of course, but, given the references he has made to his parents in interviews, one which was made with heart as well as mind.
“If only our political leaders will learn, many talented youths are becoming orphans, jobless and homeless due to their failure to deliver dividends of democracy. Thank God we didn’t lost Victor Moses like many hundreds that must have wasted away.”
That’s the deeper significance. Moses speaks effusively of the welcome he receives on international duty, both in Nigeria and throughout Africa, but from the terrible circumstances within his early life he has risen to become a symbol of hope – or, at least, a cautionary tale with a happy ending.
Violence essentially stole his childhood, so that he exists on the Premier League stage at all is remarkable. That he now finds himself in the spotlight’s warm embrace is wonderful.
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