Nigerian Footballers in Finland
KAJAANIN HAKA (KajHa) are not, in any sense of the word, a powerhouse of Finnish football. They play in Kajaani, for starters. A small town of 38,000 people in the north of Finland, not much happens there and Haka have done their utmost to continue that tradition.
They’ve had a few seasons in the top two divisions, a TUL (Workers’ Sport Association) title in 1999, and not much more. In 2006 their local rivals Kajaanin Palloilijat and FC Tarmo decided to join forces in an attempt to bring a higher standard of football to the city, and formed a new club called AC Kajaani. Now AC and KajHa battle it out in Kolmonen, the fourth tier of Finnish football, drawing crowds not much bigger than the proverbial three men and a dog.
The combined weight of sponsorship has seen AC shake things up through sheer financial strength, and when they poached KajHa’s Georgian midfielder Lasha Chkhaidze in the close season it was a sign that KajHa would have to work very hard to keep up.
Enter 28 year old Paul Nwachukwu and 23 year old Junior Obagbemiro. Junior’s career has taken him to the United Arab Emirates, Iran, Nepal, Malaysia, Bangladesh and India. He was the top scorer in the 2007 Bangladeshi Championship, scoring 16 goals in 20 games for Brothers Union, before heading off to Sporting Clube de Goa in the Indian league. Nwachukwu got 14 goals in 2007 and was second in the scoring charts, but his club Mohammedans had a much better season and finished third in the league.
It was in Bangladesh that their paths to Kajaani began, when they met a former footballer who has now settled in Asia. “In Dhaka I met one of my idols, Ladi Babalola,” says Junior. “He played for Nigeria at the 1987 Under-20 World Championships, and everyone in Nigerian football looks up to him. He is friends with Mikko Perälä, who has connections at clubs in Finland. That’s how we started to think about coming to Europe.”
“Europe” is the key word here. Footballers in Asia often earn much more money than they do in Finland, but the chance to impress scouts in a bigger league is the main motivation for players to leave a comfortable career and a hefty wage packet to try their luck in Europe. And Finland is – just about – in Europe. So leaving behind the massive crowds and bigger pay packets of South Asia is an attractive option, even if the European option is not exactly at Champions League level.
“For us Africans the dream is to play in Europe,” continues Junior. “It is easier to prove yourself, to play for the national team and get transfers to big clubs from here than from Bangladesh.” The Bangladeshi League has provided players for Finnish clubs before. Stanley Festus was another of Babalola and Perälä’s imports, but unfortunately red tape and injuries have prevented him from making a big impact.
Now happily married and playing for HyPs in Kakkonen, Festus had an eventful few months when he first arrived in Finland back in 2004, after registration problems forced him to start at FC Raahe in Kolmonen. Festus became something of a cult figure among fans who followed his progress via the FutisForum2 messageboard, with ‘Stan the Man’ merchandise sold and a skate shop in Oulu providing him with clothes.
Things went a little bit smoother this time. Without a club to register Junior and his compatriot Paul Nwachukwu, before the end of April, they came to KajHa on trial and instantly showed their class. Coach Rauno Lesonen liked what he saw, and now the players are looking to improve their income and standing.
“Of course they are very good players in the third division,” laughs Lesonen. “We would like to keep them. But it all depends on their attitude, they are still learning about the culture and the playing style in Finland.”
“The players here are like a family,” says Junior. “We have a big group and we need a good team spirit. If I stay here we have to do something with the team, we have to get promotion. It’s a young team but they are good players and we can achieve something.”
The promotion charge suffered a major setback just before the mid-season break, when KajHa lost 2-1 to AC. A mischievous suggestion that maybe KajHa should have joined the merger brings a fierce response from chairman Jarmo Anttonen.
“I was born Haka!,” says the former KajHa captain, before modifying his stance slightly. “Well, I’ve played for them since I was six years old. Now we have a ‘sinettiseura’ award from the Finnish Football Association for the quality of our work with youngsters, and I want to continue that work.”
Anttonen thinks for a bit, before settling on the best way to describe the difference between his club and the merged entity. “We are a family, and our family is better than theirs. They are only two years old. They don’t even have a family!”
Such bullishness is a pre-requisite for his position, as the chairman of the poorer club in a small footballing backwater in Northern Finland. KajHa are lucky to have found such good players, but they might not have them for long. Nwachukwu has a trial lined up in Italy, and Junior might well move within Finland. Anttonen will surely console himself with the knowledge that these lads are unlikely to move across town to AC.
This article also appeared in the July 11th edition of the Helsinki Times. For more in Finnish football, visit Egan’s blog Football in Finland.
Photo credit: jervelrivman on Flickr.