Professional soccer player
Oguchi Onyewu is one of a handful of American soccer stars playing in professional European leagues. In 2004, he began an impressive run as a defense player with the Belgian club Standard de Liège, and in early 2007 moved over to England's Newcastle United. Onyewu also plays for the U.S. national team and was heralded as one of the sport's newest homegrown talents in the build-up to the 2006 FIFA World Cup. The U.S. national coach, Bruce Arena, told one reporter that Onyewu "has a rare combination of great physical qualities with the ability to play tactically, and he's a good one-on-one defender who reads the game very well," Arena asserted to USA Today's Kelly Whiteside. "We've seen other players with these qualities, and I always said, ‘When are we going to get an American player like that?’"
Born in 1982, Onyewu is the son of Nigerian parents, Peter and Dorothy, who came to the United States in the 1970s to study at Howard University in Washington, D.C. Their own names were selected around the time of their conversion to Roman Catholicism, but they gave each of their five children traditional Nigerian
monikers: Onyewu's two sisters are Chi-Chi and Ogechi, and his brothers are called Uche and Nonye. His own name, Oguchialu, means "God fights for me."
Onyewu began playing soccer at the age of five on local kids' teams in the Maryland suburbs of the nation's capital, and by his teen years had proved such a promising talent that he had joined an elite junior team, F.C. Potomac, and was invited to participate in the U.S. Youth Soccer Olympic Development Program. That led to a berth on the U.S. Under-17 junior national team, and he was credited with helping them achieve a fourth-place finish—its best ever—during the 1999 Under-17 World Championships in New Zealand.
Onyewu graduated from Sherwood High School in Olney, Maryland, and enrolled in Clemson University of South Carolina. After playing two seasons with the Clemson Tigers' men's soccer team, he decided he was ready to seriously consider the regular offers that came from professional soccer clubs in Europe to sign him. In 2002, he inked a contract with F.C. Metz in France. The club was in France's first division at the time, but was ousted from top-tier Ligue 1 play and relegated to Ligue 2 by the time that Onyewu arrived for training. This complicated the terms of his contract, and though he was paid he did not play for several months. Finally, the Metz management agreed to loan him out to a Belgian team, La Louvière, in 2003. He played one season with the team before moving on to another club in the Jupiler League, as the Belgian First Division league is known, in 2004.
Standard Liège was the home team of Liège, an industrial city in the French-speaking part of Belgium, and one of the country's most popular soccer teams. Onyewu quickly emerged as a player to watch, and Standard made him a permanent member on its roster in July of 2004. He enjoyed tremendous popularity in Liège for his defensive abilities throughout the next two seasons, and Standard even managed to finish in second place in the Jupiler League's 2005-06 season. He also continued to play for the U.S. national team after making his international senior-team debut in an October 2004 match against Panama.
Onyewu's West African heritage made him somewhat of a rarity in Belgium, where even in larger cities like Liège the slim minority population is generally of North African or Arabic descent. He admitted in an interview with Steven Goff of the Washington Post that there was some racism in the heated atmosphere of the arena, though. "One game, the fans were making monkey noises at some of our players," Onyewu told Goff, who noted that there were several players of African descent on the Liège team. "They just don't like foreigners. It's just ignorance. Some [opposing players] will say stupid stuff: ‘You black this, black that.’ And you think to yourself, ‘Now what did you achieve by saying that?’"
Onyewu became a local celebrity in Liège and even throughout Belgium, and learned French quickly, which further endeared him to the country's ardent soccer fans. Newspapers called him the "Terminator," a reference to the American action-hero played in film by Arnold Schwarzenegger, because he towered above nearly everyone else, having reached a height of six feet, four inches, by the time he turned 23; he also weighed in at 210 pounds. In the history of the U.S. men's national team, only two other players were taller than Onyewu—and both were goalkeepers, making him the tallest player on the field in team history. Moreover, he was lean and muscular, with just seven percent body fat after having bulked himself up over the past few years via a weightlifting regimen. He did admit, however, that his physique could work against him at times, he explained to New York Times writer John Eligon. "A lot of times I get called for fouls when I barely do anything, just because of my size, I think," he said. "I just try to keep my hands to myself because I know as soon as I touch a player, they're going to fly, regardless, just because of my size advantage."
Onyewu's star rose even higher thanks to his brief but solid performance in the FIFA World Cup 2006 tournament. He started for the U.S. national team in each of its three games, but in the third one he was called on a foul by referees, which he protested. The replays seemed to show that Onyewu had not committed it, but the Ghanaian team was granted a penalty kick anyway, and scored a goal from it that gave them the lead. When the U.S. lost that game 2-1, they were ousted from World Cup play altogether. Nevertheless, Onyewu's talents earned him the U.S. Soccer Athlete of the Year award in 2006 from the United States Soccer Federation.
At a Glance …
Born Oguchialu Chilioke Onyewu on May 13, 1982, in Washington, DC; son of Peter and Dorothy Onyewu. Education: Attended Clemson University, 2000-02. Religion: Roman Catholic.
FC Metz, France, professional soccer player, 2002; La Louvière, Belgium, professional soccer player (on loan), 2003, Standard Liège, Belgium, professional soccer player, 2004; Newcastle United, England, professional soccer player, 2007; U.S. national team, player, 2004.
U.S. Soccer Athlete of the Year, United States Soccer Federation. 2006.
Office—c/o Newcastle United Football Co. Ltd., St James' Park, Newcastle upon Tyne NE1 4ST, England.
In January of 2007, after several weeks of rumors that Onyewu would sign with a club in England's first-tier league—known as the Premiership—the management of Newcastle United announced he would be joining their team for the last 13 games of the season. Technically, Onyewu remained under contract with Standard, but was likely to be signed permanently to the northern English city's team. "From the moment I signed up as a professional footballer, I always had my eye on the Premier League," Onyewu enthused to Paul Gilder, a sportswriter for city's Journal newspaper. "Because of my particular characteristics and abilities, I always wanted to play in England and I am happy to be able to realise that ambition. I feel lucky to have landed here and my dream has come true. Now it's up to me."
Journal (Newcastle, England), January 30, 2007, p. 50; January 31, 2007, p. 64; February 3, 2007, p. 104.
New York Times, July 24, 2005, p. 8.5.
USA Today, August 17, 2005, p. 3C.
Washington Post, April 11, 2006, p. E1.
Newcastle United,www.nufc.premiumtv.co.uk/page/Welcome (April 9, 2007).
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