His passion for football survived for 3 years in a refugee camp. Now this St. John’s player is pushing the pros

A man stands smiling with two thumbs up during a training session on a football field.
Felly Elonda was born in Congo, but first started playing organized football in St. John’s. He has brought those skills to the field with the HFX Wanderers under-23 squad. (Submitted by Felly Elonda)

Felly Elonda is one step closer to reaching the highest level of Canadian football, but the young player’s love for the game began far from the fields at St. John’s where he honed his skills.

Born in Congo, Elonda spent three years in a refugee camp in Zimbabwe before moving to St. John’s when she was ten.

“The love of football for me has always been there, even in the refugee camp. Whenever there was a game, me and my friends would all go to someone with a TV and just watch a game,” he said.

“When you see something on TV like Ronaldinho or Robinho, [Didier] Drogba, you see them doing crazy things on the field. So after the game you all go out barefoot… and just try to imitate what they were doing on TV.”

Holy smokes, this guy is really really good.– Ian Osmond

In St. John’s, Elonda started playing football at Leary’s Brook Junior High and was noticed by Ian Osmond, a coach with the Feildians Athletics Association.

“I took my son to junior high soccer practice and I said, ‘I’ll be here watching for five minutes,'” Osmond said.

“I saw this skinny kid on the field, I’d never seen him before, and on the third touch of the ball, holy smoke, this guy is really, really good.”

Osmond went on to coach Elonda at Feildians for six years, a time the young player said helped him develop his skills on the pitch.

“It was new to me because growing up it was very disorganized, wasn’t it? It was just me and my friends kicking the football outside… There was always a ball around, or if not, then grabbed my friends and I always have plastic bags and then just wrap it all up and make a football out of it and just go out and take a shovel,” Elonda said.

“When I got the chance to join Feildians it was completely new to me. I wasn’t really used to playing in an organized sport… but over time I got used to being in that environment. and it has paid off.”

A soccer player in a light blue jersey stretches out his arm as he is about to kick a ball.
Elonda earned a spot in the starting lineup with the HFX Wanderers under-23 team. (Submitted by Felly Elonda)

That environment helped Elonda achieve an under-23 development program with Canadian Premier League’s HFX Wanderers FC.

Developing young talent

The program is a new initiative to provide development opportunities for young players from Atlantic Canada and to pave their way to the CPL, the top tier of Canadian football and the country’s only fully professional league.

Elonda took part in the first training camp of the program in November and impressed the club, being invited back to training and earning a spot in the under-23 squad for a series of matches.

“They really liked my style of play. They liked my movement on the ball and so I had the chance to be called up again to this last camp and be a part of the U-23,” he said.

The young midfielder also recently had a touch of some European talent, joining a squad of Atlantic college star players who beat out Sunderland AFC’s under-23 squad who play in the second tier of English football.

“I was like, ‘Whoa, I, Felly get to play against Sunderland, European players.’ These are the players we will see on TV in the coming years,” he said.

“For us to get a big result like a 3-0 win over Sunderland, that’s huge.”

Two soccer players of opposing teams look up on a soccer field.
Elonda also played with a team of Canadian college footballers that defeated an under-23 squad from England’s Sunderland AFC. (Submitted by Felly Elonda)

Now back in Newfoundland and Labrador, Elonda is preparing for the season at Memorial University Sea-Hawks and continuing the push to play professionally.

“My goal has always been to try to reach that professional level and test myself and be in that environment where I can thrive as a player, as a person,” he said.

‘A whole journey’

Elonda’s former coach called him “a fine young man” who has the ability to pursue that professional football goal.

“It’s been quite a journey. Just so, so proud of him and it makes me proud as a coach to be a part of it,” Osmond said.

“To be honest, he’s not only his coach, he’s also become part of my family. [I’ve] I’ve gotten very close to him over the years.”

There’s some extra inspiration for Elonda to watch a star player like Alphonso Davies lead Canada’s men’s national team back to a World Cup for the first time since 1986

“Canada welcomed me and my family and gave us the chance for a better life,” said Alphonso Davies, who celebrated a goal against Curaçao in a CONCACAF Nations League game in June. (Daryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

Davies, 21, was born in a Ghanaian refugee camp after his parents fled the civil war in Liberia. The family came to Canada when Davies was five and eventually settled in Edmonton.

“I look at it and I see it as motivation. I look at them, I say, ‘If they’ve done it, if they’re doing it, why can’t I?’ And so I strive every day to get better, as a person and as a footballer,” he said.

“Especially now, in this environment with the Wanderers, you get to see that, hey, this new level of football is achievable. I can do it. I’m not far behind those players.”

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

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