MLSsoccer.com's "Under African Skies" series is a look at what the first World Cup held on the African continent means to Major League Soccer's African players. Today we feature Ugo Ihemelu of FC Dallas, who was born in Nigeria.
Forgive Ugo Ihemelu if his loyalties are split during the 2010 FIFA World Cup. The 26-year-old FC Dallas defender was born in Nigeria, but his family immigrated to North America when he was four, first going to Canada before settling in Texas four years later.
Ihemelu also has two caps for the US National Team. His most recent appearance came in a January 2009 friendly against Sweden, when he came on for the final 14 minutes. His previous cap came in January 2006 when he played in a 5-0 win over Norway.
WATCH: Ihemelu scores for FCD
Even though he hasn’t lived in Africa for over two decades, he admits that when he learned South Africa was hosting the 2010 World Cup, he was elated.
“I hoped it would happen,” Ihemelu said. “I think it’s going to be a good thing. I think a lot of Americans have a certain picture in their mind when they think of Africa. This should expose them to what it’s [really] like over there, hopefully.”
The FCD center back also feels that this year’s setting also gives the African contingent of teams somewhat of an advantage.
“I think it gives the African teams a better chance at winning," he said. "I like to watch Nigeria, and I like Ghana and Ivory Coast. I like their style of play. I think it should make it an even more [exciting] World Cup because those teams will have a big impact on who wins the tournament this year.”
Even though he will be pulling for both Nigeria and the United States, Ihemelu would like to see the US advance deep into the tournament.
“I think I would enjoy it a lot more if the US made it further because a lot of people still doubt the US, and it would prove a lot,” he said. “People think of [Nigeria] as a team with talent that can do anything, so they’ve earned a little bit of respect. The US hasn’t earned the respect they deserve. I’d like to see the US do well.”
And when asked to predict how the US and Nigeria will fare, he wasn’t at all bashful to offer his thoughts.
“I have a good feeling about the US," he said. "Their group isn’t as tough as Nigeria's, but they still have to come out and play the games. Anything can happen, but I think they should do well. I have a feeling they might advance out of the group."
Ihemelu also offered his take on how Nigeria could perform.
“It’s tough because you never know what team you’re going to get," he said. "They’ve been playing some games to get ready for the World Cup and haven’t done so well. They have a lot of talent, and depending on what team shows up that day, they can get far in the tournament. The fact that the tournament is in Africa definitely helps them.”
Since the U.S. and Nigeria are in different groups, the chances of them meeting in this year’s World Cup appear to be remote. However, if that were ever to happen, this MLS veteran would be torn, to say the least.
“That would be tough," Ihemelu said. "Nigeria is where I was born, but I’ve been in the States for so long. I’ve gone to college, to camps and have a lot of friends on the US team. I would be torn and would be happy to see a tie."
Rooting for the US will take on added meaning as a close friend, forward Herculez Gomez, is among the 23 players on the squad in South Africa.
“He was my roommate," he said. "We lived together in LA and then we got traded together to Colorado. We would vacation together and stuff like that. I talked to him before the camp and when he was in Mexico, we were always talking.”
The FCD defender will be keeping close tabs on how Gomez fares on soccer’s biggest stage.
“I’m really pulling for him—I hope he gets a chance,” he said. “He’ll really do well because he’s willing to take shots and he just works hard. His story is crazy. Things have really turned around for him in the last six months.”