Even now, it's still hard for Charly Musonda to talk about that day in 2018 and the knock-on effect it had on a career that promised so much.
From his new home in Levante, a picturesque region on the Spanish Mediterranean coast, a man who was once described as the best 16-year-old in the world has a tear in his eye as he recalls four years of uncertainty, pain and isolation over an emotional 90-minute Zoom call.
"It's something I still think about now," Musonda tells SPORTbible. "I have lost so much time. You get injuries: they happen. But you never think it's going to take that much time. I didn’t know if I was going to be able to play again. Doctors said I was never going to be the same after that day.”
Back in early September 2018, just a week after joining Chelsea's feeder club Vitesse Arnhem on a season-long loan, the immensely-talented winger made the two-hour coach journey from Holland to Belgium to play in a friendly match against Royal Antwerp.
He was naturally eager to impress manager Leonid Slutsky on his debut but in the opening stages, a 50-50 challenge left Musonda unable to walk. "The ball was in the air and I stuck my leg out," he remembers. "And the opponent came with his studs high. He kicked the ball but at the same time, he took my knee out."
Soon after the incident in Belgium, doctors said the odds of him ever playing football again were just 20 per cent.
“They said: ‘You're not going to have the same knee and you're not going to be able to do the things that you were once able to do',” he remembers. “They said I was going to suffer a lot. Basically, if I have the surgery, then that's probably the end of my career."
Fast forward exactly 48 months from tearing his posterior cruciate ligament and Musonda is sitting on another coach. This time, the Levante team bus has parked up outside the Estadi Ciutat de Valencia stadium in Orriols for their Spanish second-division clash against Cartagena. As he looks up at the 26,000-seater stadium, Musonda can feel a tear running down his cheek.
For the first time in four years, he has been named in a senior matchday squad.
"It was the best feeling I've had in a long time," he says with a smile. "I remember thinking to myself, 'How have I managed to get myself into a position where I'm able to be part of this again.'
"I waited for everybody to get off the bus because I was crying so much. I was sat at the front and the team was mainly sat at the back. Nobody really saw me. I eventually wiped my tears and went to the dressing room. I wasn't even starting. I was just part of the team. That just shows how much I love football, but also how much I've worked to get into that situation. It has been such a long road."
The resilient Musonda would soon make his first start for Levante in their Spanish Segunda clash against Getafe – an achievement he never thought possible. Now, aged 26, one of Chelsea's most-talked-about youth prospects ever wants to tell his story with the hope of inspiring others along the way.
At the age of 15, Charly Musonda was one of the most sought-after teenagers in world football. Barcelona, Ajax, Arsenal, Manchester United and Liverpool were all interested in bringing the Anderlecht youngster to their club but two teams stood out above all others – Manchester City and Chelsea.
It was, in his words, a flip-of-a-coin decision. He was sat in the stands when Sergio Aguero scored that last-minute Premier League-winning goal against QPR and a week later, the teenager travelled to Germany to watch Didier Drogba cement his status in Chelsea folklore by scoring the winning penalty against Bayern Munich in a dramatic Champions League final.
As he looked down at the celebrations that night, Musonda's mind was already made up. In the summer of 2012, after a serious amount of interest from a host of top European clubs, he joined the Blues alongside his two older brothers, Lamisha and Tika.
Chelsea had finally managed to sign the highly-rated forward but after so much fanfare and talk over his future at Stamford Bridge, it would take five years for a player dubbed the 'next Eden Hazard' to make his first start for the club – an EFL Cup third-round tie against Nottingham Forest.
"It took so long for me to make my debut," Musonda says. "I'd been there for five years at that time. Fans were singing my name. Looking back at it now, it's still very emotional. I'd gone through so much."
Chelsea's loan system has been a controversial topic of debate for many years.
For every Mason Mount or Reece James, two homegrown players that have become first-team regulars after flourishing in the lower leagues, there is a Lucas Piazon; the Brazilian midfielder who accused Chelsea of not giving him a proper chance after being shipped out seven times in nine years.
Musonda was one of many teenagers to sample life away from Stamford Bridge. During his first loan spell with La Liga side Real Betis in 2016, he picked up the man-of-the-match award on his debut against Valencia before making 24 appearances under Juan Merino, who was desperate to sign the Belgian on a permanent basis.
Musonda, however, returned to his permanent home in west London and things looked promising. Then-Chelsea manager Antonio Conte soon handed Musonda his debut with six minutes remaining of their Community Shield defeat to Arsenal and, of course, that memorable goal in a 5-1 win against Nottingham Forest followed.
But like so many talents before him, he was loaned out again.
Looking back with a typically balanced and thoughtful view on the situation, Musonda understands why the system was, and still is, in place at big-spending Chelsea. He also understands the financial aspect of sending players out to potentially cash in for a bigger price down the line.
But the Belgian believes he was ready to break into Conte’s first-team plans in 2017 before joining Celtic on an 18-month loan deal.
"If you compare the different eras of football, things are changing," he says. "Even at Chelsea, youth players are getting more first-team minutes, which is great to see. But when I was there, it was very tough. I mean, I was at a good level after coming back from a loan spell in Spain. It wasn't one of those ones where I couldn't play, but it was just difficult to get a start.
“Youth players just weren't as involved. It was so difficult to get into the first-team. For me, that was the emotional side of it. There were a few moments when I thought, ‘Oh, it's a Champions League game or a team that we would normally be expected to win against.’ But I still had to wait."
Musonda goes on: "When I was at Chelsea, that’s how they operated. At the end of the day they are a winning machine. The system was working because they were winning trophies but at the same time, the loan system was mainly about making profits while trying to develop players."
He describes the loan system as a "lottery" for young players. Regardless of talent, those brief spells are difficult because "you don't necessarily belong to the team you're going to."
"Is it right or wrong? It's not for me to say because at the end of the day Chelsea were winning silverware," he adds. They had Eden Hazard, Willian and others. It's not as if we had 40 players on loan and the club was not performing. Every club is set up differently."
During his early years at Cobham, Musonda would often hear people say he was the next big thing. Fans were convinced he would become a staple of Chelsea’s first team after such a promising start to his young career but that all changed when he suffered a career-threatening knee injury while playing on loan at Vitesse.
“All of a sudden, I wasn’t getting any calls,” he remembers. “Nobody is texting you. Nobody is asking where you are. It was a very lonely place."
After being ruled out for a couple of months, he returned to complete his season-long loan spell at the Dutch club, although a brief four appearances from the bench followed. In between training sessions, he would place a bag of ice on his knee for hours to try and soothe the pain. Deep down, he knew something wasn’t right.
A trip to the doctors for another assessment followed and the results were not good.
“Basically they said if I have the surgery, then that would probably be the end of my career. That's what I was told,” he said. “The problem with your PCL [posterior cruciate ligament] is that as soon as you have surgery, the odds of you coming back, especially with a grade three tear, are slim. They said my knee was in a complicated situation. It's a very, very rare injury. They said you can forget about being an explosive player again and doing the things that you have been used to doing."
Within a month, Musonda decided to get a second opinion on his injury, so he visited Dr. Koen Lagae – a knee surgeon from Belgium who was the understudy to Dr. Marc Martens, a renowned sports injury specialist that performed surgery for the likes of Kaka and Ronaldo Nazario.
“He said to me, 'Listen, it's a tough one, but you can come back at the end of the day. It's up to you'. As soon as he told me that, I forgot everything that the previous doctors said and we went from there. I was optimistic. I said, 'Okay, let's do the surgery if you're telling me there's a chance'.”
10 months after going under the knife and Musonda was still struggling. There were days when his knee was completely fine but others when the pain was unbearable. He was, in his own words, fighting an uphill battle with both his physical and mental health.
As he looks back at that difficult period, you can almost feel the pain in Musonda’s voice.
“It was a very lonely place,” he says. “I've been alone for the last three or four years. I remember when the crutches came off after that first year and I said to myself, ‘Okay, listen, you're alone, and you have to embrace it.’ There weren't a lot of people to talk to. In the four years I was injured, only a few people called me and said, 'Hey, how's the injury going?' In fact, I can count those people on two hands.
“The first year, people were in contact but, as the years went on, fewer and fewer people got in touch. That's just the way it is. It's not the fault of anybody. But that can affect people mentally. You go from being at Chelsea, where everybody wants something from you, to being forgotten two or three years later.
"On top of that, you have to watch games on TV and people you know are playing. Football and life carries on. It's a very tough place to be in mentally. I struggled with myself. I didn’t necessarily know what I was anymore. It would have been very easy to give up. I don't look down at anybody who decides to give up.”
Determined to fight back, Musonda would regularly visit his local David Lloyd gym to work on fitness before returning to pre-season training at Chelsea in the summer of 2021 but his knee was still swelling up, even after all that time off.
The Belgian forward hadn’t played consecutive games for over four years at that stage, so it was always going to be tough. Ultimately what got him through those persistent setbacks was his love for the game.
"A lot of players are talented but they don't necessarily care about football. And that's nothing on them,” he says. “You do whatever you have to do. You play football and you make a living out of it. You love it, obviously, but to an extent. So then it's actually easier to give up. But I've always really loved it.
“I’ve always said if I can run, I'll play. You'll find me in League One, League Two or playing in a third division somewhere. I would always play football somewhere regardless.”
At the start of last year, Musonda wanted to give it one last push, so he travelled to Dubai to train with his own private physio, who managed to work wonders in the Arab country. In fact, after paying for everything out of his own pocket, he left Dubai with “zero problems” in his knee.
But on May 24, 2022, after a decade at the club he called home, an emotional Musonda confirmed his departure from Chelsea.
“Not being able to play for four years has been heartbreaking,” he wrote on Instagram. “There is no other way to put it, it’s been soul-wrenching. In all honesty, I would be lying if I said that I thought I would be leaving this way and even more so if I thought that I would go four years without playing football after my knee injury.”
What most people don’t know are the finer details behind his final days at Cobham.
Musonda tried to convince then-Chelsea boss Thomas Tuchel to keep him at Stamford Bridge and even offered to play for free. He wanted to show that he could train hard, play with the U23s and see what happened from there but after talks with technical director Petr Cech over the phone, he knew straight away that there was nothing more he could do.
Then, on his final day, Musonda didn’t say goodbye to most of his teammates because strict COVID-19 measures meant the first-team building was closed. He spoke to several youth players, who were sad to see him leave, but it was understandably tough to depart without seeing those who played such an important part in his decade-long stay in west London.
That being said, among all the negative aspects of his final day, a chance meeting with academy kitman Eric Asiedu will stay with him forever.
"I’m getting emotional even thinking about it,” Musonda says, looking across the room. “The person I ended up spending the most time with on that day was Eric, who had been there way, way before I joined. I spent 15 or 20 minutes speaking to him before going to the car park and getting into my car.
“I'm very happy that I said bye to Eric that day because two days later, I went back home to Belgium and on the Chelsea WhatsApp group chat, someone said Eric had passed away.
“It was crazy. He was the only person I spoke to properly that day. I didn't know he was sick or anything like that. We had a great chat. I feel very fortunate to have talked to him for 20 minutes. That's what I remember most from my last day at Cobham.”
Rest In Peace Eric💔— Reece James (@ReeceJames) June 7, 2022
You was more than a kit man. You had a real clean heart, funny personality and always wanted the best for all the academy lads. Miss the days when I used to rummage for fresh Nike socks 😭
Until we meet again💔 fly high & rest easy. Will miss you🥲 pic.twitter.com/pg0nyue8P7
In August last year, after being released from Chelsea, Spanish club Levante invited the Belgian forward to train at the Ciutat Esportiva de Bunyol – their training facility located around 25 miles west of Valencia. Within a few days, they moved quickly to snap him up.
As well as getting some much-needed minutes under his belt, Musonda's overall mindset has changed in Spain. He would rarely stay behind after games during his time at Stamford Bridge but now, he's the last player to leave the dressing room. In fact, Musonda has been known to stay two hours after the final whistle to help Levante's kitman with dirty laundry.
You can sense his overall appreciation for the game is higher than ever before. Rather than see the negatives of being left on the bench, Musonda is just grateful to be back on the field again.
“Being able to wake up in the morning and knowing I'm going to train with the group is amazing," he says. "That's what I love to do. That's the best thing about being a football player again. Being part of a team. I'm very fortunate and very grateful that Levante have taken a chance on me and giving me an opportunity to feel like a football player again.
Musonda goes on to give a great analogy of his most recent transfer. "I feel like being in the second league matches up with how my life has played out," he says. "Levante are a team that normally compete in the first division but now, they need to bounce back from disappointment and earn promotion.
"I'm at a stage in my career where I love the club that I'm at. It’s a proper family club."
The 26-year-old, like he has done on numerous occasions throughout our chat, is getting emotional again as he talks about returning to the game.
"Every single day, there's something new that happens," he smiles. "That's exciting for me. There are a lot of things that have just passed me by down the years but I’m older now and appreciate the little things. Getting named in the matchday squad is one thing but also getting to warm up is great. I'm also able to go on away trips again, which is something that I haven't done in a long time.
"All these little things that are happening... It feels like I'm playing football again for the first time. That's just the way it feels, whereas some players who have played 500 games by now. I'm crying over what many players would see as normal stuff."
So far this season, Musonda has made 10 appearances for Levante, including a start in their Copa del Rey defeat to Atletico Madrid, where he came up against the likes of Antoine Griezmann and Rodrigo de Paul, who recently lifted the World Cup with Argentina.
He is still picking up injuries here and there as he continues on his journey. That was always going to happen after such a lengthy period on the sidelines but, ultimately, the signs are promising.
“Every day is an ongoing struggle with fitness but I'm able to play football again," he says. "There's no pressure. I'll just play and see where things go. The most important thing for me is to have fun. Being a part of a team again is great. It's the little things.
"At the end of the day, when you miss out for four years, training alone for a long, long time, the little things are great. Now, after training and games, I often look back and say I'm proud I turned up."
Musonda is naturally wary of getting too excited about the future considering the sheer number of knock-backs he's had.
For now, he is taking every day as it comes. Many doubted whether he would play football again after that posterior cruciate ligament injury in 2018 but, after so much blood, sweat and tears, the Chelsea academy product is back on the scene; where he belongs.
"To be honest with you. I'm just happy to be back in the football world," he says. "I’m not just watching games on TV, like a fan. But I’m learning again. It’s an ongoing process but I feel that to be playing again is a massive achievement. I could have given up a long time ago.
“I've always said this season is going to be a period of adaptation. I'm just getting used to everything again. Next season, I think I'm going to come back strong. I'll be more aware of where I am and the level. Hopefully, we get promoted to be able to play in La Liga. But this year is more about just being a football player again. It's like a romantic movie.
“It's gonna be tough. I'm 25 now but, realistically, I can put a shift in and get to maybe 37? That's still 12 years. I'll be proud of myself if that happens. But that's a long way away. I'm just happy to be playing football again. And then from there, we'll see how things go.
"I'm just very grateful to be able to kick a ball again.”
Before ending our Zoom call to continue his day in sunny Spain, the thoughtful Musonda wanted to share another one of his future plans.
The 26-year-old is eager to help young footballers who have been through a similar experience to him.
“Young players going through that need support," he says. "They need people to be able to speak to, people who have been in similar situations and are able to guide them through whatever they're going through. I've always thought about starting something. Whether that be a podcast or being able to have one-on-ones where people can speak with you.
“We have to find a way. Even professional football players who are playing now, they speak about the tough times they're going through. I'm very, very grateful and thankful to be in a position where I'm playing again, but there are a lot of kids who don't come back. You have to find something else to do. And that's very difficult.
"It would be great to help people understand that what they're going through is normal, and help them through the process of going through tough times. Find them something else to do, or maybe find them a lower league team. That's something I'm really interested in doing."