During eight years of playing professional soccer in Europe, US international Oguchi Onyewu had grown wearily accustomed to monkey noises and racial slurs made by fans toward black players.
But Onyewu, whose parents immigrated from Nigeria, said he had never heard such discriminatory remarks uttered at him by another player until a playoff match last month to decide the Belgian league championship.
Onyewu, who plays for Standard Liege, said that an Anderlecht player, Jelle Van Damme, called him a monkey and made other inflammatory remarks in a match on May 21.
Onyewu complained to the referee, then nearly left the field when no action was taken, before he was persuaded to remain by his team-mates. The matter did not end there. This month, Onyewu filed a legal complaint in a Belgian court, claiming Van Damme had violated the country’s laws against public insult and criminal defamation.
“I just wanted to make it public,” Onyewu, 27, said in an interview while preparing with the US for the Confederations Cup, a prelude to next year’s World Cup. “People have got to be aware that certain things in sport are not acceptable.”
Jean-Louis Dupont, Onyewu’s lawyer, said in a telephone interview that Onyewu was not seeking monetary damages but simply wanted “moral compensation.” In other words, a public apology.
So far, one has not come. Van Damme, who is white, has denied making any racial remarks during the match and has said he is not a racist. Attempts to reach him were unsuccessful.
“We are not investigating whether Van Damme is a racist,” Dupont said. “From what I hear, he is a nice guy. What we are investigating is, what is the result for the victim? It really hurts. These words are off limits.”
International soccer officials, who do not want to lose disciplinary control of their sport, said they believed players should seek remedies available through sports bodies, not the courts, when dealing with racism.
“They should not take legal action,” said Sepp Blatter, the president of FIFA, soccer’s world governing body. That sentiment was echoed by UEFA, the sport’s European governing body.
Blatter said he doubted a judge would rule in Oguchi’s favor. Yet there have been at least two other court cases regarding racism in the last year, and the aggrieved athletes prevailed in both instances. Dupont said that Oguchi’s hand was forced because Standard Liege, his team, did not investigate the incident.
FIFA has called racism a “deplorable trend” and has joined with UEFA to campaign against discrimination, using such measures as player suspensions and relatively small fines against clubs and national teams. Some teams have even been ordered to play matches in empty stadiums because of racist behavior by fans.
“I just think there are certain boundaries that shouldn’t be crossed,” Onyewu said. “Race is not a topic to make fun of. From what I gathered, he was just trying to provoke me. There’s other means of provoking a player without crossing that threshold.”
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