IRENE, South Africa — As far as the staff at the Irene Country Lodge is concerned, the real star of the U.S. soccer team, bunking there during World Cup, isn’t Landon, Clint or Tim. It’s Oguchi Onyewu.
“Maybe because my name is not as normal as everybody else’s, or they can identify with my name more so because it’s authentically African,” he said. “People that work at the hotels or whatever seem to smile whenever I walk around. Maybe they’re scared of me. I don’t know. But I know it’s a good feeling.”
Well, he does sort of tower over everyone.
The 6-foot-4 defender was born in Washington, D.C., to parents who moved to the United States from Nigeria to attend Howard University. His family includes brothers Uche and Nonye, and sisters Chi-Chi and Ogechi. While he feels an affinity with Africans because of his ancestry, he grew up in suburban Maryland.
Onyewu’s World Cup participation was in doubt after he tore the patellar tendon in his left knee during the final World Cup qualifier on Oct. 14. He didn’t make it back onto the field for AC Milan, his Italian club, and he played in only parts of the three warm-up matches.
Yet, there he was Saturday against England, outrunning Wayne Rooney and battling Emile Heskey on headers. While the U.S. defense was shaky entering the World Cup, the play of Onyewu and Jay DeMerit was perhaps the biggest reason the United States tied England, 1-1, putting the Americans in prime position going into Friday’s match with Slovenia.
He had read all the articles questioning his fitness, and found them amusing.
“I said it from the beginning, in interviews weeks ago, that I’d be ready,” he said Wednesday. “Everyone is like, ‘Oh, he says he’ll be ready, but that’s just his competitive spirit there talking.’ To finally, in a sense, silence the naysayers, it feels good. It gets them off my back — for at least one game.”
While 17 of the 23 American players are with European teams, Onyewu is the only one with a big-name club. He signed last summer with AC Milan, a seven-time European champion. And while he was given prominent playing time during the team’s preseason U.S. tour, he appeared in only one of 10 competitive matches before getting hurt in a 1-0 Champions League loss to Zurich on Sept. 30.
He drew international attention just before the start of World Cup training camp last month when he extended his contract by one season for free, until June 2013. He said he felt he owed it to the club – which is owned by Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi — because he hardly played during his initial season.
“I didn’t make my decision to look for responses from the public. That’s a personal decision I decided to make,” he said. “How the public perceives it or takes it, that’s great. I’m glad that I got a lot of positive responses from that.”
Teammates depend on the 28-year-old center back to anchor the defense. He started during the 2006 World Cup – and still gripes that German referee Markus Merk unfairly awarded Ghana a decisive penalty kick when Onyewu jostled with 5-foot-8 Razak Pimpong for a header at the edge of the penalty area four years ago.
All through his long injury rehab, other American players expressed confidence that the teammate they call “Gooch” would make it back in time for the World Cup. Still, Saturday was his first full game since Oct. 10.
“Gooch is a confident player,” forward Jozy Altidore said. “He believes in himself 100 billion percent. If there’s anybody you’d expect to get stronger over the course of a game like that, against a team like that, (it) just says a lot about the guy and his character. ... So I’m not surprised.”
Now that Onyewu has played a full game for the first time since knee surgery, some wonder if he can do it twice within a week.
“I consider myself a 90-minute player and I have been throughout my whole career, so … that’s not going to be a problem,” he said.
He and the rest of the team know the huge stakes Friday. The loss to Ghana in 2006, which meant elimination, still stings.
“The game against Slovenia is going to determine if we get out of the group or not,” he said. “It’s a must-win situation.”