Philly-area brothers on cusp of Olympics Wissahickon grads may make the Nigerian soccer team.

Posted: July 20, 2008

The phone call from the Nigerian Football Association came to the Ogunbiyi house in Gwynedd, Montgomery County. Out of the blue, a Nigerian soccer official wanted to know if two Ogunbiyi sons, Jide and Tunde, both graduates of Wissahickon High School, would try out for Nigeria's Olympic soccer team.

"I was shocked. I was really shocked," said Lai Ogunbiyi, Jide and Tunde's father. He took the call last summer. "Soccer in Nigeria is like a religion," he said.

And his American-born sons, two of them, could play the sport in the Olympics for his own native country.

Two days after the phone call, Tunde Ogunbiyi, a backup goalkeeper at the University of New Hampshire entering his junior year this fall, left preseason college training and got on a plane for Nigeria. Jide, a starting forward entering his senior year at Santa Clara University, which competed in last fall's NCAA tournament, joined Nigeria's team at a later camp.

The brothers have held their own. They are in South Korea now, at a five-star Hilton resort on the coast, the only nonprofessionals still in the mix for Nigeria's team.

If the Ogunbiyis make the final cut early this week, the products of Philadelphia's powerhouse PSC Coppa club program will find themselves in a first-round game Aug. 13 in Beijing Workers' Stadium against their native United States. Nigeria won Olympic gold in 1996 in Atlanta.

"There are only a select number of people in this world who can call themselves Olympians and for me to be among that select number would be an amazing accomplishment," Tunde Ogunbiyi, born in Abington, said in an e-mail Friday. "To have made it this far is stunning to me."

As best they can figure, the tryout invitation resulted from the several weeks the Ogunbiyis spent at a soccer school in Lagos, Nigeria, each summer as teenagers. The brothers played high-level youth soccer around Philadelphia. But Lai, who came to the United States from Nigeria to go to college, and his wife, Elaine, originally from Jamaica, also thought the boys were spending so much time traveling to games that they were "not getting enough concentrated training," as Elaine Ogunbiyi put it. So after their club seasons were done each summer, Jide and Tunde attended the Pepsi Youth Football Academy in Lagos.

"I think it helped them tremendously," said Lai Ogunbiyi, who grew up in a small town about 45 miles from Lagos, the son of a tailor. "It's very different. It's very fast-paced and aggressive. When they first went to Nigeria, I told them that when I played, I played on bare feet, on fields with no grass. I saved my cleats for the game. They laughed. They thought I was lying."

The main field at the academy was grassy, but the other training fields were mostly dirt, and the brothers saw plenty of players in bare feet. But it wasn't some backward environment. The Americans had to step up their game. They called home marveling about the fast pace and hard shots.

"Any passing drill, they say one touch. You cannot do two," their father said of the academy. "If you do two, you are out of the drill. Repeat that over and over, and then move, and not just move, expect the pass immediately. It's so different. . . . When they do the cone drill in Nigeria, they put space in between each cone, about two feet for the first touch, then they start closing the gap between each cone, and they expect you to go just as fast, then even faster as the cones get closer. Repeat that over and over until you get it."

Files from the Pepsi Academy apparently were given to Nigeria's Football Association. Those files showed that Jide was the academy's MVP for three straight years and apparently that his younger brother was a goalkeeper to watch. The boys were invited to try out for the under-17 national team. They flew over and the tryout went well. But their parents decided they were too young to leave high school for several months to join the team.

Nigeria is a proven incubator of top European professionals. In Korea, the Ogunbiyis are roommates with Victor Anichebe, a top young forward for Everton in the English Premier League. The brothers are optimistic about making the Olympic team but are never sure about which pros might come in from their European clubs at the last moment.

Tunde Ogunbiyi remembers that initial phone call, how life was a blur for days afterward.

"I did go straight to Nigeria," said Tunde, also the goalkeeper for the Ocean City Barons in the amateur Premier Development League. "We were in camp in Nigeria for about two weeks before traveling to South Africa. The game environment was very charged and a serious one because every game was important to us in qualifying for the Olympics."

The men attribute their start in the sport to their mother, who told her husband the boys were spending too much time on the couch watching television. She didn't want them to get fat.

The parents met as students at the University of California, San Francisco. Lai ultimately got a Ph.D and is a pharmacologist, while Elaine is a biochemist. They got married and moved to New York and then to Pennsylvania.

Jide is a finance major, while Tunde majors in mechanical engineering. But both are thinking about a future in soccer. Tunde is 6-foot-2 and 220 pounds, a "man mountain," in the words of Ocean City Barons general manager Neil Holloway. Jide is 6-4 and 205 pounds. He will captain the team as a senior at Santa Clara this fall.

Often, the Nigerian Football Association gets publicity for its unorganization. This year, Joseph Yobo, a central defender at Everton, was going to be one of Nigeria's three over-age players except an NFA secretary forgot to put his name on the preliminary roster. Yobo can't go to the Olympics.

Yet this same organization kept files on two Americans of Nigerian descent and tracked them down in the suburbs of Philadelphia.

"I would never have imagined that I would be in this position right now," Jide Ogunbiyi said in an e-mail from Korea.

Contact staff writer Mike Jensen at 215-854-4489 or mjensen@phillynews.com.

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