One of the more nuanced assessments of Arsene Wenger’s legacy concerns his impact on African football. Paragraphs one to five of his managerial obituary rightly deal with Arsenal, Monaco, and his innovation, but there’s space enough too for a reflection on his faith in African players and what that was worth at the time. George Weah has always spoken of Wenger with paternal fondness and there are, at least from 1990s and early 2000s, many other example of players who have benefited from his vision.
Like everything to do with Wenger, those ratios were healthier in the early days, but it can’t be denied: he did more than most to challenge pejorative stereotypes. He didn’t just tap the continent for its athleticism, but believed also in the technique and creativity of players from that part of the world. He revived Nwanwko Kanu’s career, of course, found and polished rough diamonds in Emmanuel Adebayor, Alexandre Song and Kolo Toure. For Wenger, Africa wasn’t just a breeding ground for athletic full-backs and nullifying midfielders, but somewhere to mine craft and ability.
Even now, that isn’t universally the case at every club. The bigoted remarks which leaked out of West Ham at the end of January unfortunately attest to that. But even though it hasn’t been enough to completely dissolve archaic attitudes, Wenger was certainly an agent of change.
In a little over a month, Nigeria will play their first game of the 2018 World Cup. When Gernot Rohr names his team to face Croatia in Kaliningrad, it will likely include Alex Iwobi and Victor Moses. Two players who left the country at a young age, who are both qualified to play for England, but who nevertheless chose to represent the country of their birth.
Within that situation lies an encouraging example. In Moses’ case in particular, the example set is very strong. His story is highly compelling and, actually, strangely under-told too.
Periodically, the Chelsea wing-back is included in lists of players who’ve been privately educated. In fact, in a 2016 New Statesman article decrying working-class access to certain professions, he was actually used as an example of someone who has risen to the top of his profession by virtue of attending a public school. It’s a quarter-truth at best and a lazy assumption massaged to suit a point which was owed a better example: Moses was educated at Whitgift, an exclusive London independent with enviable facilities, but his journey there was anything but privileged.
Moses was born in Lagos in 1990 to Christian parents. Orphaned in 2002 after his mother and father were murdered in religion-fuelled 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 West Ham 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 and, eventually, Stamford Bridge, is a frequently repeated part of the tale, but the human voyage he experienced is less considered and far more extraordinary.
The anecdotes that exist from his early years in this country are telling. There are stories of crippling shyness and of a boy so displaced from his comfort zone that he was practically mute; according to reports, 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 entitlement and advantage. But it is also often a very white, very upper-middle class environment in which difference is persecuted and global perspective is scarce. Moses, quite understandably, is reticent to talk about his formative years in public, 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 tale of a mother who was willing to drive them to training or a father who worked two jobs to buy a new pair of boots. Moses’ story is less common; it’s more film-script than real-life and it has that blend of acute hardship and eventual happy-ending that Hollywood will never tire of. It’s a tale of perseverance and, also, of a great bravery that makes Moses a naturally empathetic figure.
But there’s another layer to the story, one which is commonly lost to our 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 not really possible to truly appreciate what that meant; there is no equivalent situation in England. Here, after all, Moses’ international eligibility was discussed exclusively in terms of his footballing value and its human aspect was ignored – by me, by you, by everyone. Our senses deadened by 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, needed to escape the country for his own safety, the temptation never to return must have been overwhelming. Psychologically, it would probably have been far easier to close that chapter of his life for good and to fix his gaze on the present and 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 but, given the references he has made to his parents in interviews, one which was presumably equal parts heart and 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 lose Victor Moses like many hundreds that must have wasted away.”
That last line is affecting. Not least because it’s true. Moses has had all the benefits of an English life and, because of his past, every reason and right to suckle at the teet of one of richest football associations on Earth. But what is the value of his demonstrating that that shouldn’t be the aim of a career? Had he chosen to play for England instead, what impact would that have had on aspirant Nigerian children who would have watched him play in the Premier League and yet not for the country of his birth.
It’s no European’s place to theorise about what Nigeria needs or, with a limited understanding of a complex situation, to speculate over the true emotional value of Victor Moses’ figurative return. It is important, though. It is healthy. As football becomes more global and its elite clubs expand across the world, their networks will become deeper and broader, infiltrating second-tier countries and creating an ever-quickening talent drain. Quite obviously, that’s of great threat to future hopes of sporting parity.
So therein lies the value of the example Moses – and others – have set. A player is always free to represent who he chooses, but that must always be a choice of the heart rather than one of convenience. The aim of a career should never be – or should never have to be – to escape and never come back, not least because of the message it sends to future generations.
Victor Moses’ actions, like Arsene Wenger’s recruitment all those years ago, have a value which goes well beyond the here and now.