His passion for soccer survived 3 years in a refugee camp. Now this St. John's player is pushing for the pros
'Every day I strive to be better, as a person and as a soccer player,' says Felly Elonda
Felly Elonda is one step closer to reaching the highest level of Canadian soccer, but the young player's love of the game began far from the fields in St. John's where he honed his skills.
Elonda was born in Congo and spent three years in a refugee camp in Zimbabwe before moving to St. John's at 10.
"The love of football for me has always been there, even in the refugee camp. Whenever there was a game on, me and my buddies would all go to someone that had a TV to just watch a game," he said.
"If you see something on TV like Ronaldinho, or Robinho, [Didier] Drogba, you see them doing these crazy things on the field. So after the match, you all go outside, bare feet … 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 began playing soccer at Leary's Brook Junior High and was spotted by Ian Osmond, a coach with the Feildians Athletics Association.
"I was dropping my son off to the junior high soccer practice and I said, 'I'll stick around and watch it for five minutes,'" said Osmond.
"I saw this thin kid on the field, I'd never seen him before, and by the third touch of the ball, holy smokes, this guy is really, really good."
Osmond went on to coach Elonda with Feildians for six years, a time which the young player said helped him to develop his skills on the pitch.
"It was new to me because growing up it was very disorganized, right? It was just me and my friends outside kicking the soccer ball around.… There was always a ball around, or if not, my friends and I would always grab plastic bags and then just wrap it all around together and make it into a soccer ball and just go outside and have a kick," Elonda said.
"When I had that opportunity 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 being around that environment and it has paid off."
That environment helped Elonda reach an under-23 development program with HFX Wanderers FC of the Canadian Premier League.
Developing young talent
The program is a new initiative to provide development opportunities for young players from Atlantic Canada and establish a path to the CPL, the top level of Canadian soccer and the country's only fully professional league.
Elonda joined the program's first training camp in November and made an impression with the club, getting invited back to training sessions and earning a spot in the under-23 team's starting lineup for a series of games.
"They really liked my playing style. They liked my movement off and on the ball and so I had the opportunity again to be called up for this final camp and to be part of the U-23," he said.
The young midfielder also had a recent brush with some European talent, joining a team of Atlantic university all-star players that bested the under-23 squad from Sunderland AFC, who play in the second tier of English soccer.
"I was like, 'Whoa, me, Felly gets to play against Sunderland, European players.' These are the players that we're going to be watching on TV in the next couple of years," he said.
"For us to get a big result like a 3-0 win over Sunderland, it's huge."
Elonda is now back in Newfoundland and Labrador preparing for the season with the Memorial University Sea-Hawks and continuing the push to play professionally.
"My goal has always been to try to reach that professional level and to try to test myself and to be in that environment where I can thrive as a player, as a person," he said.
'Quite a journey'
Elonda's former coach called him "a fine young man" who has the skill to pursue that professional soccer goal.
"Quite a journey. Just so, so proud of him and it makes me proud as a coach just being part of it," said Osmond.
"Not only being his coach to be honest with you, he's become part of my family, too. [I've] gotten very close to him over the last few years."
There's some extra inspiration for Elonda seeing a star player like Alphonso Davies lead Canada's men's national team back to a World Cup for the first time since 1986.
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, eventually settling in Edmonton.
"I look at that and I see it as a motivation. I look at them, I say, 'If they did it, if they are doing it, why can't I?' And so every day I strive to be better, as a person and as a soccer player," he said.
"Especially now, being in this environment with the Wanderers, you get to see that, hey, this new level of soccer is attainable. I can do it. I'm not far behind from those players."
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.