While there is some debate about the United States’ most popular sport, the top three are most definitely baseball, basketball and football. On college campuses across the United States, the latter two receive the most funding and attention from administrators and fans. According to historians, soccer arrived too late and was viewed by many Americans as a foreign game. Indeed, it was immigrants from Europe and later Latin America that helped popularize the game. In this photo essay, we focus on the role that immigrants played in the history of soccer at Fresno State.
The Cosmopolitan Club
In the 1940s, foreign students from Germany, Russia, Ecuador, and India, along with a few students from the United States, formed the Cosmopolitan Club. Through this new club, they introduced soccer to the campus community and used the sport to assimilate into the American culture, while still holding onto a piece of their countries’ culture. The Cosmopolitan Club was later be recognized in the Fresno State yearbook, and more importantly by local media outlets. The team photo, pictured above, was published in the Fresno Bee. The Cosmopolitan Club would set the stage for the Fresno State Men’s Soccer team, which was founded in 1970—almost three decades apart from the creation of the club.
The Coach that Let the Bulldogs Out
Perhaps not surprisingly, an immigrant was responsible for bringing the Fresno State Men’s Soccer team national attention. The Spaniard Jose Elgorriaga arrived at Fresno State in 1949. It was here that he received his PhD, met his future wife, and joined the faculty as a Spanish professor. Finally, in 1979, Elgorriaga became the assistant coach. Shortly after that he became the team’s head coach. Through his leadership, the men’s soccer team became a nationally ranked powerhouse and made a Final Four apperance. In December 2009, at the age of 82, Elgorriaga passed away after battling an illness for years. The impact that he had on the community, campus, and people is still being felt today.
In 1970 when the first team was established, they had mediocre seasons. The Bulldogs would not make it to the NCAA National Tournament until 1972. However, it wasn’t until the 1980s and under coach Jose Elgorriaga’s leadership that the team started winning games and recognition. The Bulldogs won league titles and regularly made it into the NCAA’s National Tournament. However, the big year for the Bulldogs was 1986-87 season, when they would reach the Final Four of the National Tournament. To reach the Final Four, they eliminated perennial powerhouses like Southern Methodist University and UCLA.
On the field, it was another immigrant who led the Bulldogs: the Nigerian soccer star Femi Olukanni. During the 1987-88 season, the soccer team made history by becoming the only Fresno State team to be ranked number one in the nation. They remained number one for more than six weeks straight and missed the coveted number one ranking in the National Tournament because they lost loss one game. Instead, they were given the number three seed in the tournament. This time, UCLA got the upper hand and beat Fresno 2-1. While the team continued to play well in following years, they never replicated those two seasons. After the 1990 season, coach Jose Elgorriaga gave up the position of the head coach, leaving a legacy at Fresno State and becoming the university’s greatest soccer coach.
How Did Femi Olukanni Get to Fresno?
Among the many great players during Fresno State’s golden years, Femi Olukanni stands out. Femi was from Lagos, Nigeria and became one of the leaders on the squad. As a young boy Femi played in the streets of Lagos barefoot and with a rubber band ball with his older brothers. It was not until he was fourteen years old that he started to play organized soccer. The same year Femi Olukanni was called up to Nigeria’s U-17 national team. Then in 1980, Femi joined the U-19 national team and ended up traveling to Mexico to play in the Junior World Cup three years later. Olukanni’s success on the international stage gave him the chance to play for Nigeria’s senior team in the African Cup. It was because of this international exposure, that he gained the attention of University of San Francisco’s head coach. Unfortunately, when Femi arrived at San Francisco it was too late for him to join the team because they were already playing. Femi made the decision to attend Foothill Community College, where he became a two-time All American and a State Champion. After his soccer career at Foothill, Femi Olukanni had offers from top schools like UCLA, but chose Fresno State because his teammate was playing there and he loved the stadium. Femi Olukanni would make history at CSU Fresno.
Femi’s first game in the 1986-87 season was against USF, the school that recruited him. He scored and helped the Bulldogs get the win. Femi would continue to score. Indeed, he was given the nickname “the Magician” and was featured in a Domino’s and Pepsi commercial. It seemed like no one would be able to stop Femi Olukanni and Fresno State. In the NCAA tournament, they beat SMU and UCLA, which broke UCLA’s undefeated record, and faced Akron in the semi-finals. They lost a hard fought match with one goal making the difference. It seemed possible that in Olukanni’s senior year (1987-88), the team could win the National Championship, but instead they lost to UCLA in the quarterfinals. In the two seasons that Olukanni played for Fresno State, he was awarded the Division 1 Player of the Year, became an All-American, and was a Mac Hermann Trophy Finalist. If Femi was such a great player, one has to wonder why Fresno State has not inducted him into the Hall of Fame? Maybe one day he will get the call; until then, Femi (and his fans) are waiting.
Vicente Soto is currently an undergraduate at California State University Fresno. He is the first of his family to pursue a higher education. Vicente is studying history and plans to teach history at a local high school.
Ernie Vargas is currently an undergraduate at California State University Fresno. He plans to become a U.S. history teacher at the high school level and to coach soccer. Ernie played competitive soccer at the youth level in the U.S., as well with Chivas in Guadalajara, Mexico.
This essay is part of Fresno State’s archive and public history project The Other Football: Tracing the Game’s Roots and Routes in the San Joaquin Valley. We are always looking for former players to interview and in search of old photograph to scan and digitize. If you would like to help us build the archive and preserve the history of soccer please contact Professor Romeo Guzmán at firstname.lastname@example.org
If you would like us to attend a soccer game and distribute our trading cards, like the one below, get in touch.