VANCOUVER, BC – Father’s Day isn’t celebrated in Australia until September, but Bernie Ibini was still thinking about his old man this weekend.
In fact, there isn’t a day that goes by that he’s not.
Ibini, who grew up in Sydney, Australia, made his Major League Soccer and Vancouver Whitecaps FC debut in Saturday’s 1-1 draw with FC Dallas. It was a proud moment for the 24-year-old – and one he’s not sure would have ever happened if it wasn’t for his upbringing.
“Work hard. Strive for the best. If you want something, go get it.”
That’s one of the main lessons Ibini learned from his late father, who suddenly passed away from a heart attack in 2013. And that advice helped Ibini get to where he is today.
Born in Port Harcourt, Nigeria, Ibini moved to Australia with his family when he was a baby. He began playing soccer at primary school and quickly fell in love with the sport, joining his local club at the age of six upon recommendation of a school teacher.
Impressing at every level he played, Ibini eventually made his professional debut with Central Coast Mariners in 2010. He spent three years with the A-League club, helping them win the league title in 2013 with seven goals and a nomination for the league’s Young Player of the Year award, before moving on to Shanghai East Asia FC of the Chinese Super League.
Things got off to a good start in China, too.
But then, when Ibini was back home in Australia for the holidays, he got the news of his father’s death, which changed everything – for him, his mother, and his three younger siblings.
“Changed a lot, to be fair,” said Ibini, who often celebrates his goals by pointing up to the heavens in honour of his father. “Just like the importance that you make the most of every day and every opportunity you get. It was tough for my family but we stuck together.”
All of a sudden, Ibini was the man of the household at 20 years old.
And it was a responsibility he did not take lightly, which is why he decided to leave his club in China and return home to be closer to the family.
“I wanted to stay with my family and they wanted me to stay with them so we could all try to get through it the best we could,” he said. “I have to commend my mom because she had to play both roles for us and she did a great job. I just tried to help out as much as I can and tried to be more mature and mentally strong for them.”
And that mental strength was tested again a few years later.
Once he and his family started to get a handle on things at home, Ibini made the move to Club Brugge in the Belgian top-flight in 2015 – an exciting next step in his career. It was going to be his first experience playing in Europe, something many footballers around the world dream of.
And it was something he knew his father would have supported.
But within two weeks of signing with the club, Ibini suffered a broken leg in training that would keep him sidelined for 15 months. It was a “devastating” turn of events, he said, but nothing compared to what he had already been through.
“I looked within myself, I thought of my dad, and I would constantly speak to my family and friends,” Ibini said. “They helped a lot. I tried to not feel sorry for myself. I tried to use every day as something I could build upon. If it wasn’t my leg, something I could build upon in terms of strength and that sort of stuff. Just use that time as much as I can.”
Ibini never ended up playing a game for Club Brugge.
Instead, he was loaned back to Sydney FC last year before ultimately making the move to Vancouver, where he is hoping to “improve as a player” and get his career back on track.
The big Aussie has been in Vancouver for about a month now. And he has liked what he’s seen.
“I’ve been enjoying it,” said Ibini, who has been hanging out with Sam Adekugbe and Tony Tchani. “I’ve got an apartment and car now so I’m finally settling in. The city is very beautiful, teammates are all great, and it’s a well set-up club. With the facilities we just moved into, it’s a really exciting time.”
He looks to be an exciting player, too.
Ibini, who can play as a winger or forward, is big, fast, and strong – someone Whitecaps FC head coach Carl Robinson believes has “all the characteristics you need to be successful in this league.” As his highlight reel illustrates, he’s also got style to match his image off the pitch.
But don’t let the tattooed arms, gold chain, or diamond earrings fool you.
“I would say I’m a pretty laid back person away from the game,” Ibini said. “I like to watch basketball, listen to music, just chill out, go to cafes and restaurants with my girlfriend, and that sort of stuff … I’m a pretty simple guy.”
He got that from his dad, too.