The long-rumored signing of Belgium defender Jelle Van Damme to the LA Galaxy is now official. While the Van Damme international will offer welcome experience to a backline which has suffered the loss of Omar Gonzalez, a certain incident in Van Damme's past will most likely rear its ugly head in the coming weeks as the player is introduced to the media.
On May 21st, 2009, during a championship playoff between Standard Liege and Anderlecht, American defender, Oguchi Onyewu, accused Jelle Van Damme of using racial slurs against him. "Van Damme called me a dirty monkey three times," he told reporters after the game.
"I almost ended up fighting him," Onyewu later told Yanks Abroad.
When asked about it after the game, Van Damme offered a strange response, alternating between denial and justification.
He said that? Then he's a liar. Onyewu called me "dirty Flemish" several times. This has been blown out of 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.
Given the seriousness of the issue, Onyewu decided to file a lawsuit against Van Damme, and his lawyer had this to say at the time:
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. 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.
Apologize or be taken to court. It was a line in the sand and it eventually achieved its desired effect. According to reports, "Jelle Van Damme met with the US international and expressed deep regret for the hurtful words he used during the match." Onyewu dropped all legal action thereafter.
Of course, given the circumstances, it's hard to take the sincerity of such an apology at face value. Van Damme, after all, did not apologize after the match. He called Onyewu a liar. His apology only came after it was demanded as an alternative to going to court, which makes the whole thing feel akin to those apologies you were forced to make as a kid or lose Nintendo privileges.
Then again, all reports indicate that Onyewu took the apology to be sincere. In fact, according to the Galaxy, Bruce Arena had separate discussions about the incident with Oguchi Onyewu and Jelle Van Damme before proceeding with the signing.
"I’ve spoken to Gooch about the situation and there doesn’t appear to be any issues or hard feelings,” Arena told LA Galaxy Insider, Adam Serrano. Arena also made it clear to the Insider that the club had done its due diligence by "talk[ing] to club officials [and] players that played against him" in order to get a sense of the type of player he is.
While Van Damme is clearly saying all the right things in private in order to convince the likes of Oguchi Onyewu and Bruce Arena, it's not an issue which he has gone into publicly at any length. In fact, to my knowledge (and I have done a lot of scouring), Van Damme has yet to publicly admit to calling Onyewu a monkey on the day. As much as some would like to close the book on this issue, until we hear something from the player himself, questions will continue to linger about the incident.