By: Suresh Nair/
THE success story of Chelsea’s Nigerian-born striker Victor Moses has a very rare touch of divinity.
Praise the Lord. Holy Moses, you may say.
His is a tale of brave heart and bold ambitions. His is a must-read article of how refugee footballers can thrive if they are given the right opportunities and support.
But as much as you may enjoy his heart-warming episode, the big issue lies in the unavoidable fact that the likes of Moses are exceptions to the norm. Many asylum seekers, who could play football at a professional level, are simply not given the opportunities to do so. The possibility that some of these players do enter the game too late may be an issue, but many football clubs still see refugees solely as a cog in their community remit.
Yes, there is still a lot of work to be done, from England to Ethiopia, Myanmar to Mexico and China to Croatia before we see a change in this mentality.
That Victor Moses had the perseverance to make a success of his Chelsea career despite being continually sent out on loan says a great deal about his character. Yet this determination pales into insignificance when compared to the biggest mountain he has had to climb.
PARENTS MURDERED IN RELIGIOUS CLASHES
Praise the Lord: Moses, with an apt biblical name, was just 11 when he arrived in England as an asylum seeker after both his Christian pastor-father and mother were killed during religious clashes in Nigeria in 2002. He was playing football in the streets when his parents lost their lives. Just a week later, his remaining family cobbled together enough money to send him away from his homeland.
Moses’s rousing popularity among his peers came thanks to his extraordinary goal-scoring exploits for the independent Whitgift School in the final of the English Schools Under-14 Cup, thanks to a 5-0 defeat of red-shirted Grimsby school in which Moses scored all five.
The Grimsby Evening Telegraph recorded the defeat with the headline: “Holy Moses – Wonder Player Parts Red Sea”.
He was enrolled in Crystal Palace’s youth academy, and so prolific was his record – he scored more than 50 goals, including 10 on debut – that seasoned observers predicted he will attract many more headlines in a potential professional career.
Moses plainly possesses prodigious talent, but his rise is all the more remarkable given his troubled background, says former Chelsea skipper Colin Pates, who mentored him.
This is the Victor Moses’ blessed experience: How a quiet, unassuming and non-English speaking African orphan found himself in south London and at the start of a dramatic change in his fortunes.
‘TOUGH IN BEGINNING’
“It was tough in the beginning – being suddenly thrown into a different culture and stuff like that,” Moses told BBC Sport in an interview. “As a young boy in a new country, you had to make new friends and that was really difficult. When I first came, I couldn’t even speak the language.”
Having been placed with foster parents, Moses was sent to school in South Norwood, which was close to an asylum support and immigration centre in Croydon.
“When I started going to school, I started getting used to things, like the language,” said Moses. “After that, I started adapting to school, friends and everything. It was really difficult to start with but I survived.”
More than just surviving, the player has thrived in his second home.
Today 26-year-old Moses boasts an array of international medals, from Premier League, Europa League and Africa Cup of Nationals winners’ medals. He has also played in both the Champions League and World Cup.
Moses adds: “I came up the hard way to become a professional footballer. At that time I was very young but when older people like that are giving advice, you have to take it. The most important thing that he always said to me is: ‘You’ve got to work hard as a footballer. Talent alone won’t take you there, hard work is what is going to help you’.”
Moses calls winning the EPL title one of the happiest days in his life. He has also celebrated World Cup qualification this year with Nigeria, the country he opted to represent despite having played extensively for England at youth level.
NOT A BED OF ROSES
But it’s not always a bed of roses for refugee footballers.
Closer to home, in Hong Kong, Republic of Congo striker Bidjoua Eustache-Hauvelith is still waiting for his application for asylum to be processed and says he’s living in “a prison without walls” for seven years.
He finds sanctuary on the soccer pitch, where he coaches All Black FC, Hong Kong’s first and only all-African soccer team for refugees. It’s where he and other enthusiasts of the sport from across the continent find a connection with home and a little hope to keep them motivated.
“Even though I have the right to work…it’s still not easy for me to be part of Hong Kong society. For them, it must be very, very hard,” the South China Morning Post quotes him. “This is what really drives me. I need to try my best, even if I can’t find a solution to the problem.”
All Black FC train twice a week with support from the Chelsea FC Soccer School, which provides soccer kits and helps to book pitches. The squad has about 20 players from more than a dozen African countries, including Ghana, Guinea, Nigeria, Cameroon and Somalia.
Although Eustache-Hauvelith is the team’s head coach, his refugee status bars him from being formally employed or taking any payment for his work. His unique position, however, helps him empathise with the players, many of whom share a similar plight.
But the odds are often stacked against them as they fight discrimination on and off the field. Without formal funding, All Black FC cannot register to join a professional league, so can only participate in friendly matches. Moreover, they frequently encounter hostility on the pitch – be it insults from players or unfair rulings by referees.
“Even in some teams that I play with where players are friends of mine, I’ve heard them call me ‘hak gwai’. I live with it with an open heart,” Eustache-Hauvelith says, referring to a Cantonese racial slur that translates as “black ghosts”.
“It shows that people still have this superior mindset. You are the ghosts; they are the people. It upsets you, but you just have to deal with it.”
But thank God, for Victor Moses, whose genuine divine-like tale of brave heart and bold ambitions will continue to inspire refugee footballers that they can thrive if they are given the right opportunities and support.
Moses, who now earns £75,000 (S$135,000) a week, always remembers the motto of Whitgift School in Croydon is Vincit qui patitur: “He who perseveres, conquers”.
Suresh Nair is a Singapore-based journalist who has covered regional football for over three decades. He believes in advancing racial equity.