Flowers on asphalt: the inside story of Moisés Caicedo
As told by the coaches who nurture young talent at the jewel of Ecuador, Independiente del Valle.
SCOUTED journalist Bence Bocsák speaks to the coaches who turned Moises Caicedo from a fragile boy into history’s most expensive midfielder - and how they’re trying to do it again.
Moisés Caicedo sat in Miguel Ángel Ramírez’s office and started to sob.
It wasn’t the first time his coach had seen him break down. Caicedo was a sensitive boy, going through a difficult time. Not only had he left his family behind to join Independiente del Valle, he had been thrust into a new competitive cut-throat environment and, on top of it all, suffered a serious injury that ruled him out for months.
Just one of those things would be difficult to deal with for a teenage boy, but all three at once crushed him.
“I didn't allow him to go to his house to celebrate his birthday,” Ramírez recalls to SCOUTED. “That was the day he cried the most.”
It wasn’t the last time Caicedo shed tears in front of his coach, but that conversation proved to be an important turning point in the Ecuadorean’s development; not just as a footballer, but as a boy becoming a man and walking into professional life.
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“He was injured and he was recovering with us,” Ramírez says, as way of explaining why he prevented Moisés from celebrating with his family and friends.
“So, he had treatment the next day and he couldn't miss any treatment. I told him, ‘Moisés when you are injured you don't have any off days, you cannot. I mean, you are losing days. The club is losing money because they don't have you performing. You are professional already. When you are outside, you cannot get this day off to come to your family to celebrate your birthday. So, this is the price that you have to pay when you are professional.’
“When you want something that everyone else doesn’t have [become a professional footballer] you have to pay the price, and this is one example. We live our best day in hotels or in training or competing, so this conversation was a way to educate him. And of course, he cried a lot because he believed it was his last birthday in his country, and he was very close to his family.”
There are moments and experiences that change us. For Caicedo, this was one. It would go on to shape the rest of his career at Independiente and beyond.
The now-Chelsea midfielder was spotted by the club’s academy in 2016, impressing scouts on a trial. But life in Ecuador didn’t begin smoothly.
Caicedo suffered a ruptured cruciate ligament in his knee shortly after arriving at Independiente, which ruled him out for close to a year. He had to buckle down and focus on his rehabilitation; the club managed his recovery process carefully. Often, Caicedo would work on his core in the gym, and the results were obvious on his return.
“I think the physical quality of Moisés was different, especially for the holding midfield position. We could see that he was stronger than the rest. His agility and his endurance was fantastic,” Yuri Solano, Independiente’s reserve team manager, recalls.
“He was really, really strong. I mean, without having a big body. But he was very strong in the duels and running, he was able to cover all the pitch, so a big capacity and technically and tactically, he was also very good,” Ramírez adds.
But what impressed coaches at Independiente most was Caicedo’s ability to read the game and maturity to adapt to every challenge they threw at him.
“The first time that I saw him in his best level was in a tournament in Spain,” Ramírez explains.
“We were invited by Real Sociedad to come to Spain and we play there with the 2000 and 2001 generation against some of the best academies in Spain like Real Sociedad, Celta Vigo, Osasuna. I saw there for the first time in a in a very difficult environment, because, of course the U-18 Ecuadorean League is not strong enough to see the real potential, so it was in this tournament when I could see the potential of Moisés by showing me that he was able to compete against the best teams in Spain.”
Caicedo stepped up in that tournament, but it was not just his performances in Spain which impressed Solano. In the reserve team, Solano saw how Caicedo could adapt to different roles and situations on the pitch as well.
“At Copa Mitad Del Mundo, he played two games as a centre-back, because our centre-back was injured, and so we asked him to play there, and he put in two very good performances.”
By that point, Caicedo was knocking on the door of the first team. But competition for places was tough. In 2019, Independiente del Valle won the Sudamericana for the first time in the club’s history. The equivalent of South America’s Europa League, it cemented Independiente del Valle’s place as one of the best sides in South America.
Led by Ramírez, who had been promoted to the first team from the academy and lifted the trophy, Independiente began the 2020 season in impressive form building on that success. A core member of the team was Caicedo, who had followed Ramírez to the senior squad. And he didn’t just break into the first team, he became a key player - starting nine games out of the club’s first 11 league matches in the 2020 campaign.
That Caicedo played such an important role in a team that had just won South America’s second most coveted trophy in the previous year speaks volumes of his talent. It was also a marker of his unique ability: the footballing brain that allows him to cope with any challenge.
“He’s got a strong mentality to face difficulties,” Ramírez says. “He was able to adapt to that competition in Spain in the tournament, and then he went with me to the first team and he was able to adapt again to the level of the first team players. He has a strong mentality, and he's always present and connected to the game - he’s not overthinking during the game, he's just playing - he's connected and present.”
“I remember in the first team he even played as a number eight – which was a little bit different to his usual role, you need some other qualities. You know you have less time anticipating the play, your body shape has to be different, but Moisés developed these qualities very fast,” Solano adds.
When Brighton eventually lured him away from Independiente del Valle, it was to nobody’s surprise. Caicedo had only played 31 games for the club, but he had already outgrown the Ecuadorean league and he was very much ready for the next challenge.
“I saw that he was ready to go far, very far,” Ramírez says. “And I was 100% confident on that when he moved to Brighton. Actually, when they loaned him to Belgium, I thought, he could play in Premier League already, he doesn't need to go to Belgium.
“With other players I could think yeah, it's a better step to go to Belgium or somewhere in Europe, you know, to have this middle step. But with him I was thinking he's ready, he can play in the Premier League. Sooner or later, he will play. Because I know him and I know that he was adapting every time to bigger difficulties to bigger challenges.”
Ramírez would be proven right. Caicedo spent only six months at Beerschot in Belgium during the 2021/22 campaign before being recalled by Brighton in the January transfer window. The rest is, of course, history. 18 months later Chelsea made him the most expensive transfer in the Premier League of all time at just 22 years old. He’s now cemented his place in an exciting and growing Chelsea side – one that is expected to lead the Blues back to the heights they reached in the previous two decades.
Caicedo’s journey from Independiente del Valle to the Premier League has been a rapid success story. He was a boy crying in Ramírez’s office; now he is one of the most recognised faces in English football.
But his story is not an anomaly. In the last few years, Independiente Del Valle has sold a plethora of academy graduates who have forged careers for themselves in Europe’s top five leagues.
This has always been the ambition of Michel Deller, the businessman who bought the club in 2007. Immediately, he overhauled the outfit, from the club’s name to its colours. But most importantly, he established a new system that emphasised the development of youth players.
Deller signed a partnership with the renowned ASPIRE academy and set up multiple football schools across the country to spot and develop regional talent, with the desire to bring the best to the club’s academy. Over the years Deller also built state-of-the-art facilities at the club to create a breeding ground for talent. He’s continued to invest in the scouting department since.
“In Ecuador, if you are football coach, you want to work for Independiente del Valle,” a former coach at the academy, Ricardo Oquendo says. “Actually, it's the place to be, to be honest. I don't know if all Americas because the MLS has developed a lot, but at least in South America, I'm really sure that there is not any other better place than Independiente.”
Deller’s efforts have paid off. Independiente have now won the Sudamericana twice under his leadership, in 2019 and 2022. Meanwhile, dozens of academy graduates have been sold to Europe.
As well as Caicedo, the likes of Piero Hincapié, Angelo Preciado, Gonzalo Plata and Willian Pancho all came through the ranks at the club.
“The reality is that Moisés is part of a very good generation of players of Independiente del Valle,” Solano says. “Most of now are the base of the Ecuadorean national team.”
“For me the importance of Independiente is the key not only for Caicedo, but for all the other guys that are growing now and showing up in the top places like in Hincapié or Pacho or Preciado, all these young boys,” Ramírez says.
“The director always says, a flower can’t grow on asphalt. A flower needs good ground and water and you need to take care of the flower to get a good one. So, of course, they [academy players] have the talent but without Independiente it would have been much more difficult [for them to make it]. Independiente worked and developed their talents and helped them grow. Independiente gave the tools and provided the good environment to develop these tools and it was the key to help in their development.”
Independiente’s work continues. In Kendry Páez, the club already has another potential world-class talent in its ranks hoping to follow Caicedo’s example.
“He was my best player. He was amazing, this is a guy who is totally outstanding in all the conditions,” Oquendo, who coached Páez at U-12 level, says.
“Technically he is amazing, and then his positional understanding is something else as well. When he was with me at U-12 level, we already knew that this kid would not only become a professional but that he would play in Europe as well.”
Páez is the youngest player ever to play for Ecuador, and the second youngest South American to debut at international level behind only Diego Maradona. At 16 years old he is already a regular at Independiente. In September 2023, he broke CONMEBOL records by becoming the youngest ever-scorer in World Cup qualifying.
“He was a match-winner. I remember a free-kick outside or close to the box, we celebrated it like it was a goal because we knew he was going to score.”
Despite his age, there is already a lot of hype around Páez in Ecuador and beyond. Chelsea have already beaten a host of the world’s top clubs to his signature, and he will join Caicedo at Stamford Bridge in 2025 upon his 18th birthday.
Páez’s story remains to be written. The expectation is undeniable, but it’s important that Caicedo’s shadow does not loom too large.
Regardless of his future, Páez proves that Independiente del Valle’s work continues apace. As with all the best academies in world football, the club’s focus is always on creating the next talent, and the next. Where Moisés has walked, Kendry has followed. Neither will be the last.
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