The Gift

Seven months before I was born, my father’s plane went down. Though my dad made a name for himself playing football for R.S.C. Anderlecht in Belgium, he grew up in Zambia, so he was proud to play for the Zambian national team. In 1993, the team was scheduled to have a World Cup qualification match against Senegal. It was a long journey, and the team plane had to stop for refueling in Gabon. Shortly after takeoff, an engine fire caused the plane to crash, killing everyone on board.

My father should have been one of them. But he happened to be suffering from a knee injury at the time, and his manager at Anderlecht forbid him from traveling with the national team.

For some reason, knees have defined our family. Last spring, I was practicing with Chelsea’s first team, following in my father’s footsteps, when one of my teammates slid in to tackle me. The second I fell to the ground, I instantly knew what had happened, and I knew I would never get that moment back. I dislocated my knee, and tore my ACL, MCL, and PCL.

But things got even worse. A few days later, one of the trainers told me that I would have to go to central London to get some tests done. The tests revealed that I had blood clots in my arteries. If the blood continued to not get through, my leg would have to be amputated. But you know what? It never phased me. If I learned anything from my dad, it’s that sometimes a knee injury is a blessing in disguise. If he could gather the strength to return to the pitch after losing his friends, then I could overcome this.

When I was laying in the hospital bed after surgery, I thought about how much different my life would be if my dad had been on that plane. Without him, I wouldn’t have football. I think he taught my two brothers and me to kick a ball before he taught us how to walk. That turned out to be a good thing, because in Europe, the professional teams start scouting from the crib. Seriously. In Africa, when you’re younger, you just play in parks with your friends. There’s not really organized team trainings like in Europe. Someone from Anderlecht told my dad that he should bring us to train with the team. We were just babies. My dad thought it was a joke at first. But we went and tried out for their youth system. I ended up getting picked up by the club when I was four years old, along with my older brother, who was a practically ancient six years old. My younger brother wasn’t even two at the time, but even he joined the club.

You might think that starting my career so young, I got sick of football at some point, or considered doing something else. It never even crossed my mind. From the age of four, I started my proper training, two sessions a week with Anderlecht. As a family though, we were playing every day really. After school, before school, during holidays, just playing football in the park with my dad and my two brothers. Competing every day. There’s no doubt in my mind that growing up in that environment made me the player I am today. First off, you can’t understate being raised by a professional football player. My dad knew the ins and outs of the game—how to train, how to rest, what to eat, what to drink—and taught us the fundamentals.

Constantly playing side by side with my brothers though, that was so important for me. I really respect both of their games immensely. I could never think about anything but football, growing up beside them. If they had chosen different careers—firefighting or law or something—it wouldn’t have been the same. We would’ve come home and talked about different things. They make me think more about football. They made me train harder, because I knew they were doing the same.

We’ve always come as a package deal. When I was 15 years old, we were all playing for the Anderlecht youth system and for the Belgian national youth teams. That’s around the time international clubs were starting to notice us. Eventually, Chelsea came to my parents in 2012, wanting to sign all three of us. When a club like Chelsea knocks on your door, you just have to say yes. I probably should have been sad to leave Brussels, where I had lived all my life. Still, this was my dream, and getting signed by a club like Chelsea was what I had worked for since before I could remember. Plus, I was with my brothers. We arrived right after Chelsea won the Champions League. We actually got signed right at the same time as Eden Hazard and his brother, and Kevin De Bruyne as well. They put us all up in a hotel in central London, and I remember the six of us all sitting together at the dinner table—six Belgian players, all experiencing this new country and this new club at the same time.

Coming to Chelsea from Anderlecht was an indescribable experience. Anderlecht is the top club in Belgium and one of the top clubs in Europe, but you just can’t compare to Chelsea. Anderlecht has a few players who are very good, but at Chelsea, every player on the team is very, very good, wherever you look. The preparation is at such a different level, because you get to be among those world-class players day-in and day-out, training with them and constantly learning from them. That first time I got to train with the first team, back when Roberto Di Matteo was the manager, I was in awe, really. I was wide-eyed and just looking around. I couldn’t believe where I was. I was doing sprints with Juan Mata, who had just won a World Cup with Spain, and I was kicking around the ball with Florent Malouda, who had played in the World Cup Final with France.

You would think being world-class players, these guys have world-class egos to go along, but nothing could be further from the truth. Even though we never knew Eden in Belgium—he was a little older than us, and left for France when he was young—he still invites us over to have dinner with his family, and to play video games and stuff. Also, as you would expect, John Terry is really the heart of the team. He’s such an example for the young guys, the way he works. Just the way he communicates with the young players is so humble. When I got injured, he was one of the main guys who was always checking up on me to see how I was doing.

When I went down last spring, I was playing for Chelsea’s Under-21 team and hoping to play first team football the next season. I was preparing to make the leap. Then with one tackle, everything changed. I could no longer focus on my future, and only on the long rehab process. But it never scared me, even when they told me that they might have to amputate my leg. It’s stupid, I know, but I always knew that I was going to come back. I knew it was all on me. I had to put every ounce of energy into getting better, and not waste anything on doubt. I’d worked so hard to get to that level that I wasn’t going to let the injury define me. I was going to define it.

Now that I’m almost through with the process and only about a month away from rejoining the team, I realize how lucky I am. Not only because I was about a centimeter away from losing my leg, but the injury really was a blessing in disguise. When you work so hard in rehab, you appreciate the game so much more. This beautiful game is all I’ve ever known, and it was taken away from me in a flash. Over the past 16 months, I had to gain so much mental strength, just being without football and working my way back. At this level, the difference between a world-class player and an average one is that mental 1%. I’ve never been more ready to play. Now every moment back on the pitch feels like a gift.

Tika Musonda