Leicester City’s Nigerian forward is keeping his feet on the ground as he waits to make his mark in the Premier League, he tells Stuart James
Ahmed Musa has been smiling at a couple of old photos showing the friends he grew up playing street football with back in Nigeria, together with a newspaper article flagging up his potential when he was a child. The third picture handed to him is much more recent, however, and, rather curiously, shows Leicester City’s £16m summer signing wearing a Manchester United shirt with “Herrera” on the back.
Musa looks at the image and breaks into laughter. “I have a five-a-side pitch at my house in Nigeria, so I always train there, and I didn’t have anything to wear to train, so I decided to wear that Man United shirt, which I got after the Champions League game against United when I was at CSKA Moscow,” he says.
“I didn’t take a shower after training and I went outside to give out food for the less privileged and then I think someone took a picture – I think it is four months old. So it was taken when I was a CSKA Moscow player, not with Leicester. But when I read the story I was laughing because it’s very funny – ‘Why is Ahmed Musa wearing a Man U kit?’”
It says much about Musa’s personality that during the course of that story he casually drops into the conversation that he was handing out food to those who are not as fortunate as him, as if it is a perfectly normal thing for a professional footballer to do in his spare time. Musa is that sort of man. Softly spoken, humble and with a strong Muslim faith, the 23-year-old has not forgotten his roots.
He is currently having a sport centre built in Hotoro, where he played for Kano Pillars, the Nigerian Premier League club. “The people back home have been so nice to me, so I want to give something back to them,” he says. “When I go back home in the future I can train with the children and feel very happy.”
Musa remembers what it was like growing up in Nigeria with a ball at his feet and it turns out that back in those days he was more likely to be seen wearing the colours of one of Manchester United’s rivals. “I grew up as an Arsenal fan,” he says, smiling. “All because of Nwankwo Kanu.”
Musa’s eyes light up when he is asked about Kanu’s influence. “Kanu is like a role model for me,” he says. “I got to know him when I started playing in the national team. He’s like a hero in Nigeria. We always have contact with each other and I spoke to him before I came to Leicester. I was in Russia and he called me, because he always advises me what to do. He told me that I would enjoy it in the Premier League and England, that it was a nice place.”
Everything that Musa has seen so far has convinced him Kanu was right. Together with his wife and two young children, Ahmed Jnr and Halima, Musa has quickly settled into his new surroundings. He has found a mosque in Leicester where he can attend prayer and enjoys the fact that he can speak freely to his team-mates after four years in Moscow relying on a translator.
Musa’s time on the pitch for the Premier League champions has been limited – two starts and six substitute appearances – but the winger has no problem with that and accepts Claudio Ranieri’s view that he needs time to adjust to the speed and intensity of English football.
His own pace is not a problem, as he showed with the first of his two goals against Barcelona in pre-season, when he sprinted from inside his own half to score, and it would be intriguing to see who crosses the finishing line first in a 100m race with Jamie Vardy. “We haven’t tried yet so I can’t say now who is the quickest. But I tell you this – we’re going to have a race one day,” says Musa, smiling.
Born and raised in Jos as one of five children, Musa’s skills were honed on the streets before he started to train at the Aminchi Football Academy six days a week, getting up at 6am to go before school. His talent soon shone through. “My friends called me Cristiano Ronaldo because I was playing on the wing and they thought I had a little bit of speed like him,” says Musa.
It was not an easy upbringing, however, and Musa had to come to terms with the devastating loss of his father while he was at school. “He passed away when I was little, he doesn’t know anything about his son being one of the stars in Nigeria, so for me it’s sad that he didn’t see what I am today,” Musa says. “But I know I have to keep on playing for him and I think he’d be proud of me.”
Musa’s first big break came in 2010, when he signed for the Dutch club VVV-Venlo. He speaks warmly about his experience in Holland, describing the football as “amazing” and chuckling at the memory of a match against Ajax, when he scored twice and gave Daley Blind the runaround to such an extent that the Manchester United defender was substituted.
By the time Musa emerged as one of the standout players at the Under‑20 World Cup in 2011, several Premier League clubs were linked with him, but at the age of 19 he felt that it was too soon to come to England and instead signed for CSKA Moscow. Apart from the weather and the language – “crazy” says Musa, shaking his head – he thoroughly enjoyed his four years in Russia, where he played in the Champions League and won three titles.
Musa talks about how Russia has made “a lot of improvement in relation to racism – I didn’t see anything during my time there” – and he has some special words for Leonid Slutsky, the CSKA coach, who briefly converted him to a striker and was always offering encouragement. “He’s like a father to me,” he says. “I think he is the one who made me what I am today.”
If there was a moment when Musa came to global prominence it was at the World Cup finals in Brazil, where he scored a couple of brilliantly-taken goals in a 3-2 defeat against Argentina. As he walked off the pitch with Gonzalo Higuaín’s shirt, he knew that his life was never going to be the same. “That was when my profile changed,” Musa says. “For me, that Argentina game was a big surprise, I’d never experienced anything like that – I never thought I could do that. After the match I said: ‘Wow.’ It was like a dream.”
The great sadness for Musa is that the man who was Nigeria’s coach at the time is no longer with us. Stephen Keshi died in June after suffering a heart attack at the age of 54 and Musa sounds like he is still coming to terms with the loss of one of the most influential people in his life.
“It came as a big shock to me. I couldn’t believe it because two days before he died we spoke with him,” Musa remembers. “So I was so surprised when I heard the sad news, because he sounded so healthy. I’d played under him for about three and a half years, in the Nations Cup and the World Cup, and he was a very nice guy, another who was like a father to me. As Nigerians and Africans, we miss a great man.”
As Musa looks to the future, he hopes to help Nigeria qualify for the World Cup finals in 2018 and between now and then intends to make his mark at Leicester, even if he has to bide his time. “The Premier League is much faster than Russia – there is so much running here – but I think within a few games I will be able to adapt,” he says as his team prepare for Sunday’s game against Southampton. “Whenever the manager decides, I’ll be ready to play and give 100%.”
This article was first published in the Guardian