Oguchi Onyewu ready for opportunity
Look one way and the mid-morning sun glints on the blue Mediterranean Sea. Spin around and white snow gleams on the peaks of the Sierra Nevada. The Ciudad de Málaga stadium is a picture-postcard perfect setting to work in, and United States men’s national team defender Oguchi Onyewu is enjoying his new life on Spain’s Costa del Sol.
There is only one thing missing from the scene: some game time. Since arriving at La Liga club Málaga on August 31, Onyewu has watched from the bench as it began the season superbly, with coach Manuel Pellegrini's experienced first choice central defenders Martín Demichelis and Weligton in excellent form.
"I am very happy and fortunate that I got the opportunity to come here," Onyewu said this past Monday. "I am settling in well, adapting to the style of play, the team and the league. I am feeling good, I am ready and waiting to get my opportunity."
Although clearly happy with his new home, there is a hint of frustration in the giant defender's voice. Since coming to Europe in 2002, he has played over 200 games at seven European clubs, with highs including two Belgian league titles at Standard Liege and reaching last season’s Europa League semifinals with Sporting Lisbon, but also lows such as unfulfilling spells at Newcastle and AC Milan.
Joining Málaga on loan gives the Washington DC-born player a final chance to prove he has the ability to perform on Europe's biggest stages. He is clearly itching to get started.
"As long as we are playing well and winning there is no reason to change," Onyewu said. "But a lot of things can happen in sport - suspension, injury, losing the favor of the coach. That can happen overnight. I am just waiting for an opportunity."
If understandably reluctant to betray completely his frustration at watching from the sidelines, Onyewu is 100 per cent clear when the conversation moves on to the persistence of racism in European football, an area where he has personal experience. In 2009, he sued opponent Jelle Van Damme of Anderlecht for what he said was racist abuse received during a game, seeking not financial gain but to spotlight an issue which often goes unreported in the European media.
The defender says he has followed the long-running John Terry and Luis Suárez cases. While not commenting specifically on any current case, Onyewu said he 100 per cent backed anyone brave enough to draw attention to "a disease" which "plagues" not just football, but wider society in Europe and further afield.
"I think measures are being taken, and more measures can be taken to try to eradicate racism from sport," he said. "If it is a big issue for them then they are right to let people see that it is an issue.
"Bringing something to people’s attention is a positive thing," said the 30-year-old defender. "Going with the flow, closing your eyes, just allows something to grow and fester and become a bigger problem in the future."
In the short term, Onyewu's mind was fixed on Málaga's Champions League meeting against his former club AC Milan at the Estadio Rosaleda on Wednesday. The in-form Andalucians shocked the Serie A club who have struggled to deal with selling their best players last summer.
The fixture is especially meaningful for Onyewu, who spent 18 injury-ruined months at the Italian giants from summer 2009, playing just one game in a spell more notable for his unique pledge not to take any salary until he returned to fitness.
"For any player to come up against his old team is special," he said. "If I see any old teammates before kick-off I will joke around with them. But I am not really worried about that right now.
"We are in a very good position in the table, with a great chance to get to the next round. Obviously Milan are having transitional issues, but Milan is Milan, they are capable of winning any game. We have to be on our toes."
Onyewu ultimately earned a cameo in the game, coming on late in Malaga’s 1-0 win.
Onyewu hopes his future includes a recall to the US national team, for whom he played at the 2006 and 2010 World Cups, but says he understands manager Jurgen Klinsmann's decision to exclude him for the World Cup qualifiers earlier this month.
"I have had a few conversations with Jurgen in the past," he said. "I have not given up on the national team whatsoever. Once I get things right here I can start to think about that side of the picture. My main objective now is to get on the field and show my worth for Málaga."