Chelsea’s Victor Moses explains how fortune, forgiveness and faith have helped him – eventually – reach the top
Victor Moses has a tattoo on his neck. It shows two pairs of dice, with angel wings. It has been a whirlwind few months for Chelsea’s 25-year-old Nigerian, who would have returned to the club for pre-season this summer bracing himself for another loan spell after his time with Liverpool, Stoke and West Ham.
Instead, he’s become a key member of Antonio Conte’s table-topping side, and is one of the Premier League’s most improved players.
It’s a development that has surprised many, but not Moses himself. He knows better than most how quickly everything can change.
“I’ve been a little bit frustrated, I’m not going to lie,” he admits when he meets us at a hotel near Chelsea’s training ground in Cobham, speaking in a low, quiet voice that still carries a trace of West Africa. Moses signed for the Blues in 2012, but despite helping them win the Europa League in that first season, he found it difficult to get into the team in the years that followed.
The loan spells have taken their toll. “You spend about a month-plus in the hotel before you find your own place to stay – stuff there kind of plays in your head, and obviously the kids have to go to another place, go to school,” he says. “I’ve not actually had time to relax. When the season finishes, you have to move back to London again, and those kind of things play in a footballer’s head.”
But everything changed with the arrival of Conte as manager.
“Every manager is different,” says Moses. “He came in and he saw something, he knew he could work with me. During pre-season he came up to me and told me I was going to stay this season, that he didn’t want me to go anywhere on loan. That he believes in me. That gave me a boost, that gave me confidence to actually go out there and express myself more and work hard for it – to help him as well.”
There’s a palpable contrast with Jose Mourinho, who gave Moses just eight minutes of action – a cameo appearance as a substitute in the Community Shield – before sending him out on loan. “I’m not here to criticise any manager,” he insists.
“But I will say as a manager, if you have a player you feel is talented, it is important to give them a chance. Obviously, we have a new manager that came in, saw what I’ve got and he gave me the opportunity to go out there and express myself.”
Wings of desire
Moses has rewarded Conte’s faith in style. He has been a standout performer in Chelsea’s new 3-4-3 system, playing in an unfamiliar role as a right wing-back, but chipping in with goals – including the winner against Tottenham last month. “I’m definitely relishing it – the position that I’m playing at the moment – I’m really enjoying it,” says Moses.
That is, of course, what every footballer in his position would say – but perhaps the real proof comes from his time playing FIFA. Moses is a regular participant in online clashes between the Chelsea squad on the game. Michy Batshuayi is the best, apparently. Moses plays as Chelsea. Not only does he switch the formation to Conte’s favoured set-up, but he puts himself in at wing-back, too.
Moses won the PFA Fans’ Premier League Player of the Month award for November, a career first. There have even been rumours about a potential move to Barcelona as a long-term replacement for Dani Alves (who moved to Juventus this summer after eight seasons with the Catalan side) at right-back. But he has his sights firmly set on winning trophies with Chelsea.
“I just want to keep on working hard,” he says. “There’s still a long way to go – we’ve still got a long season. I know we have a lot of quality players and I know we can play. We’re working hard together as a team – we just want to keep improving.”
Moses missed out on the league title celebrations in 2014/15. He was out on loan at Stoke. However he is ready to give his all for the team.
“I’m enjoying my football,” he says. “I’m at one of the best clubs in Europe, so hopefully there are still more games and trophies for me to win for the club in the future. It’s just about being given the opportunity.”
He’s had help from all sides as he has adjusted to his new role. To his left, there’s Cesar Azpilicueta, who was unveiled on the same day as Moses in 2012, but has played almost four times as many games for Chelsea.
“He understands it more than I do, so he’s constantly talking to me, making sure that I’m in the right place and that really helps me,” explains Moses. On the other side, there’s the always-vocal Conte – who made an impression right from the off.
“I’m pleased to have him,” says Moses. “He is very passionate about the game. Obviously everyone’s seen him on the touchline. The way he reacts and stuff, we as players like it. It motivated us to actually do well and work hard for him.”
For those on the wings, there’s a significant risk of permanent hearing damage. “He is constantly in my ears just
to make sure I’m doing the right thing and in the right position,” says Moses, smiling.
Lion to Eagle
It was around this time of year, 14 years ago, when Moses first arrived in England. When he was 11, his parents – a Christian pastor and his wife – were murdered in religious rioting in the northern Nigerian city of Kaduna, their hometown. More than 200 people died across three days of violence known as the ‘Miss World riots’.
They were targeted because they had a church, and that meant their son was also a target. He went into hiding at a friend’s house, while relatives scraped together enough money to get him to England as an asylum seeker. Despite what happened, Moses still carries his parents’ faith.
“That’s something that no one can take from me,” he says. “I’m still religious. I’m a Christian.”
It’s tempting to join the dots, to link the childhood tragedy with the drive and determination required to make it as a footballer. But it’s not like that.
“To be honest, what happened in the past happened is in the past,” says Moses, low and quiet. “So the way I look at things… I leave things. Whatever happened in the past, I leave it behind and just move on. What happens in the present is what counts. The past doesn’t count no more. You’ve just got to move on with life.”
Moses could have easily ended up an England player, having represented them at every age-group level. In 2007, he even won the Golden Boot as the Three Lions made it to the final of the European Under-17 Championships.
Instead, in 2013, he helped Nigeria win their first Africa Cup of Nations in 20 years, scoring twice along the way. Is it hard, we ask, representing Nigeria – pulling on the shirt of a country whose divisions cost him his family.
“Whatever happens, happens,” he repeats. “There is nothing that I can do about it any more. And, as I’ve said, I’m a religious person. If God can forgive someone, so can I.”
Handbags and history
The orphan was placed with a foster family in Croydon – a Caribbean couple with whom he lived until the age of 17, and with whom he’s still in touch. “They’ve really played a big part in my career,” says Moses. “They’re the people who are always there for me, encouraging me to make sure I’m heading in the right direction. Sometimes when you go out on loan, you don’t feel quite right – but they’re always there, ringing on the phone, encouraging you.”
Football also played an important role in helping him settle into his new home. He was capable of doing things with a ball that no one in the parks of south London had seen before. Moses was 13 when he got his first proper taste of organised football.
“I was in the park, playing football with a couple of mates,” he remembers. “There was a team that was training, and the manager saw me from a distance and called me over.”
The team was a Sunday league youth outfit called Cosmos 90 FC. Moses scored eight goals for them on his debut, from centre-half. He was quick, strong and flamboyant on the pitch. On one occasion, the mother of a goalkeeper who he had humiliated with a nutmeg and a chip in quick succession ran on to the pitch and started hitting him with her handbag.
Word spread quickly, and soon a couple of hundred people would be turning up to watch him. “Crystal Palace must have heard about me,” says Moses. “They sent a scout to come and watch me; the scout came and said: ‘I want you to come to Palace for a trial.’ I went there, and the rest is history.”
Palace pulled the strings for Moses to attend the prestigious Whitgift School in Croydon, and his exploits for their team made national news when he scored all five goals in the FA Youth Cup final against a school from Grimsby, whose red kit inspired the headline: ‘Holy Moses – Wonder Player Parts Red Sea’.
Football was easy for him back then, an exhibition. Off the pitch he was insular, traumatised – at Palace they say he barely spoke for the first two years he was there. But on it, he was one of the best players they had ever seen, destined for bigger things, and a natural showman.
He remembers trying to score from the byline in one game, “to try and do something different”.
“The ball actually went in,” he explains. “Everyone else was thinking: ‘How did he do that? How did he do that?’”
Finally, after years of frustration on the Chelsea fringes, or out on loan – that talent is being realised at the top level. His life has been shaped by tragedy, but not controlled by it. Instead, Moses is driven by fortune, forgiveness and faith.
He has kept on rolling the dice.
By Amit Katwala. This article was first published in Sport magazine.