My Oulu: Elijah Junior chose Oulu after his career as a professional football player ended
Elijah Jr.’s professional career as a football player ended in JS Hercules after season 2019–2020 was over. As an experienced globetrotter, Elijah Jr. was surprised to find himself settling into Oulu after retiring from the football fields. A comfortable life made him stay in Oulu, although the beginning in Finland was difficult. Today his days are filled with social work, football coaching, family, and making his own podcast.
Nigerian Elijah Junior Obagbemiron started his professional football career in the United Arab Emirates in 2001.
“I was playing in NUGA, which was the university league in Nigeria, when I was scouted to play in the UAE. I was 16 and so naïve when I moved away from my home country. My first contracts were so poor that I hardly saw a dime of the money I earned. It was a rough time to be alone, without a guardian in a foreign culture. But it was an important school, too – I learned a lot during those years,” Elijah Jr. says.
From the Emirates, player transactions took Elijah Jr. to Iran, Nepal, India, Malaysia, and Bangladesh – until he met Mikko Perälä in Goa in 2008. Perälä is an Oulu-based serial entrepreneur, whose company TopSpot Ltd. was scouting African football talent to bring them to play and train in Finland and Europe. TopSpot acquired Elijah Jr., and Kainuun Haka became the right winger’s first club in Finland.
“Until that date, I had played a lot in Asia, where the climate is rough for playing football, even as high as +42 degrees Celsius. Moving to Kajaani… It was rough in a different way. It was a small community, and we were the first Africans there. The local people wanted to touch our hair, take pictures – we were a wonder just because we were black. The cultural differences were huge, but we tried to blend in as much as possible,” Elijah Jr. recalls.
“Sport brings people together. I started to gain acceptance, and also my success on the football field helped me in Kajaani. Our club was really supportive – I even stayed my first months in Kajaani under the roof of Jarmo Anttonen, the President of the club! I made a lot of good friends while playing in Haka – I’m still in contact with some of them,” he continues.
After the first season in Finland, Elijah Junior was moving back and forth between Asia and Finland – each season seemed to start in a new club, in a new country.
No return to Nigeria
Moving around the globe is part of a professional football player’s career, but Elijah Jr. is not planning to move back to his home country. The reason for it is quite surprising.
“My family name is Obagbemiro. Roughly translated, the name means “the king above all the rest”. It means that my family is the ruler of the county I was born in. However, my father never took the throne, and our family moved to another part of the country when I was little. But our name is big, and the throne – It has a lot of power. I would be eligible to take the throne, but I have been able to avoid this responsibility due to my professional footballer’s career abroad. If I moved back to Nigeria, I would put myself in a difficult position. I don’t want such a status nor the responsibility that comes with the throne – it might be dangerous, too. There are a lot of traditions attached to royal life that are against my own values. I can certainly visit Nigeria, but I will never move back there – I enjoy my comfortable life here in Oulu with my family,” Elijah Jr. says.
What is the secret of his comfortable life in Oulu? What makes the life so happy that he is willing to give up royal life with its financial benefits for family life in Koskela, Oulu?
“My life in Oulu is an ordinary one, I really enjoy my freedom here. During my 16 years of professional football, I never thought that I’d end up staying in Finland. But suddenly I notice I’ve been here for a long time and my life is good. I have two small children, we just bought a house, and workwise I’ve found my place and purpose here in Oulu,” Elijah Jr. asserts.
Important work with integration
Elijah Jr. feels that his work makes his life meaningful. He has found a way to utilise his previous personal experiences in his work after leaving the professional football fields.
“I’m coaching a junior football squad of HauPa club in Haukipudas, so of course football is still a big part of what I do. But I truly found myself enjoying social work: I’ve been part of Lähiörähinä in Puolivälinkangas youth centre, encouraging kids to play football. I worked in a refugee centre for a couple of years, helping asylum seekers. Currently I work with young people at the YMCA. I know what refugees and expats are going through, based on my own experiences while living abroad and trying to settle in different cultures. The beginning in the integration is always horrible – for myself too,” Jr. laughs.
Finnish language skill is needed in social integration, but one can become local even without fluent Finnish skills – as did Elijah Jr.
“I always came to Finland “only for a year”. I thought I would survive without Finnish, as I’d be somewhere else in the next moment. I do understand Finnish a bit, but instead of language, sport was my key to integration. In Puokkari youth centre, we trained with multicultural, mixed teams and those kids still play football! For asylum seekers, learning the language is important for getting a positive ruling for their asylum. They also have loads of time to study the language, which I never had. My work permit was never dependent on my language skills,” Elijah Jr. admits.
Oulu Is more open and tolerant now
When Junior came to Oulu for the first time, the city was very different compared to today.
“There were hardly any Africans in Oulu, and maybe three of them had a real job. Job opportunities were rare for immigrants, and the atmosphere – it was so introverted! But local people opened up little by little, more immigrants moved to Oulu, and today the city is really from another planet. There are more job opportunities with a decent payroll than before. Expats are also part of the decision-making in the city through the migrant council – we have become part of the community. The mindset of local people towards the immigrants has changed over the years, too. They have opened up. It has not been an easy process, I presume, but here we are: respectfully living as a joint community,” Junior ponders.
Podcast about life
Besides his work, Elijah Jr. has found time for himself, too: he started his own creative project, Ejay’s podcast. The podcast has become quite popular among other Nigerians – ones still living in Africa and dreaming about life abroad, as well as other expats. However, the focus of his podcast is not only on immigration and integration, but on life in general.
“I’m quite sociable and like performing in front of people. I enjoy listening to podcasts, and it occurred to me that I might have stories to share that people would like to listen to. But even if I share my experiences from my career and moving around the globe, the podcast is not about me. I always bring in guests that are in the spotlight. We discuss different topics and of course I might share a bit about myself, too,” Elijah Jr. says.
“I make episodes when I have time. My life is rather full now with coaching and other work. My kids are also small, so I have my hands full with them. But somehow, I always find time to work with the podcast as well. It’s a matter of time management, I guess,” Junior laughs.
Ejay’s podcast is a nice way for Junior to connect with his friends and football fans all over the world. For the time being, Elijah Jr.’s professional career in Oulu is driven by football and social work, but who knows – maybe someday creative work could play a bigger role in his life.