Standard Liege defender Oguchi Onyewu has decided to make a stand against racism
By Nick Bidwell in Brussels
Rather than transfer rumours or talk of impoverished clubs merging, the back pages in these parts have been dominated by the thorny issue of racism after Standard Liege’s Afro-American centre-back Oguchi Onyewu accused Anderlecht’s Belgian international defender Jelle Van Damme of calling him a “monkey” during the championship play-offs, which Standard won 2-1 on aggregate.
Onyewu, who claims Van Damme aimed slurs him on three separate occasions in the first-leg – allegedly, the words used were “dirty monkey”, “monkey” and “keep crying monkey” – alerted match referee Johan Verbist, but as the official had not heard the insults, his hands were tied. “I called Van Damme over to discuss it,“ said Verbist. “He strongly denied it. I could do nothing. It was the word of one man against another.“
Asked about Onyewu’s accusations at the end of the game, Van Damme, obviously thought attack was the best form of defence: “He said that? Then he’s a liar. Onyewu called me “dirty Flemish” several times. This has been blown out of all proportion. On the pitch there’s a lot of nervousness and many things are said in the heat of the moment. I think supporters understand intimidation is part of the game. Of course, there are limits to it. I want to make it clear I’m definitely not a racist.“
The end of the matter? Not a bit of it. In a clear statement of intent, Onyewu’s next move was to hire high-profile Belgian lawyer Jean-Louis Dupont – the advocate behind the landmark Bosman ruling – and before you could say “judge and jury”, the decision was made to sue Van Damme, the complaint of insults of a racist nature whizzing its way to a Brussels court.
One thing is for sure. With Dupont in charge of the brief, the case will not lack the oxygen of publicity. “Mr Onyewu believes he has a moral duty to take legal action. He is looking to make a stand against the prevalence of such racist comments in professional sport. He wants to help eradicate this sort of behaviour in football. There are many lesser known African players who don’t have the stature to publicly denounce the insults they receive. With Oguchi it’s different.
“All my client wants is for Mr Van Damme to admit his words and make a public apology. It is not a question of whether Van Damme is a racist. Oguchi is the first to believe and hope that he is not. The key issue is that these attacks continue to be used on the pitch.
They are expressed in order to hurt and they do. By uttering certain words, Van Damme knows he was being offensive and when you offend someone, you say sorry.
“Anyone at the match or watching on TV will have seen how Onyewu was disturbed by the incidents. Those who know him realise he is not the sort to play act every week. You can only deduce from these two statements of fact that something did go on.“
Onyewu, a regular in the USA defence, has found himself at the sharp end of racism many times before in Belgium, where he has played since 2004. He has suffered the monkey chants, an opposition fan punched him as he prepared to take a throw in and his car was once set upon by Club Brugge hooligans, who kicked and hammered on the vehicle as he sat helpless in the driving seat.
The American promises he will withdraw the writ if Van Damme responds with a “mea culpa”. But should there no public display of contrition, even a lawyer of Dupont’s undoubted skills may be hard-pressed to emerge triumphant in his day in court. No one present at the Parc Astrid has come forward to say they heard Van Damme’s alleged insults and TV images of the two protagonists in close proximity do not appear to offer much for the lip-reader either.
Unseemly, uncertain, unsatisfactory.