The decision to claim asylum was not pre-meditated. It was not a pre-planned mass defection, there were competing factors involved, and many of the players were scared that an asylum claim could — if it failed — destroy any hopes of getting a work permit to play for a European club. The team had impressed in their three games. They had drawn 3-3 with a Spain team including Cesc Fabregas and David Silva, and considered themselves unlucky to have been eliminated.
“There was a lot of talk about a few players — Samuel Barlay, Obi Metzger and one or two others,” says Christian Thibault, a German who has lived in Finland for decades. A landscape gardener by profession, he spent the 2003 championships scouting for Borussia Mönchengladbach, the nearest big club to his home village in the Rhineland.
Metzger was one of those who went back to Sierra Leone. Although he was always confident in his ability to play football in Europe, his route was not direct. First he went on trial at top flight clubs in France and the UK, but contract difficulties ensured he could not sign a professional deal. So he played in youth teams of clubs in France and Sweden before injury curtailed his time in Europe. He went back to Sierra Leone to recuperate.
Racing to Beirut
“In Africa it is difficult to play because there isn’t space, alright there are big fields but the structure is not there,” said Metzger when YLE caught up with him at a pre-season tournament in Lahti. The temperature outside is well below freezing and the ground is frozen solid, but there are good conditions inside for footballers to train. The infrastructure gives Finland an edge over Africa, despite the inhospitable climate.
An offer came from Lebanon and off Obi went to earn a decent wage playing for Racing Beirut. Lebanon is not on the itinerary of many football scouts, however, and Metzger's impatience soon told. He wanted to move to Europe, and asked his friends in Finland to help him.
The move entailed a pay cut, but Finland — despite the low crowds, part-time players and low intensity league — is one step closer to the big time. Obi's move to Atlantis, a team that yo-yo’s between the second and third tiers in Finnish football, was a calculated risk.
Since then he has played for several teams in the second and third tiers, and even spent a season in Slovakia, without quite making a breakthrough. This year is his first in Veikkausliiga, the Finnish top flight, where he plays for FC Haka. His transfer to Valkeakoski would, in days gone by, have been a major stepping stone in a young player's career, but for Obi it is more like one last chance.
'Haka is like a big theatre'
Haka established a dominant position in Finnish football in the post-war years with massive funding from Finland's powerful paper industry. The club has won nine championships and regularly competed against the best in Europe.
Those days are gone. The pulp mills at one end of Haka's ground are now quiet, many of the sponsorships have dried up, and the club is fighting to avoid the fate of a factory club that loses its factory.
“Our budget is quite small this year,” says Olli Huttunen, the club's Chief Executive. “Haka is like a big theatre. We can give a chance for the players to play and they show if they can do it or not. It’s good for the players and for us.”
Of the 2003 group of 23 players, only five are currently in the Sierra Leone national squad. Obi is one of them, along with Umaru Bangura, Sheriff Suma, Samuel Barlay and Mohamed ‘Medo’ Kamara. Establishing a spot in the national team is of paramount importance to Metzger, but he does not feel that he has shown his best form for the ‘Leone Stars’ yet.
“When you go there it is so difficult to play well. Even in the African Nations Cup, it is so difficult, the big players often don’t perform well there.”
After eight years of setbacks and incremental progress, Metzger no longer believes in overnight success. He has made it to Valkeakoski's 'big theatre', but Haka could be a crossroads for him. If he succeeds, a big move gets a little closer, but if he doesn't, then he is likely to find himself back in the Finnish lower divisions.
This is the first in a three-part summer series probing the fates of Sierra Leonean footballers who came to Finland for the 2003 under-17 World Championships.