When you watch the Rapids midfielder order his music television and cable by phone, wearing a Kangol bucket hat and sagging shorts, you get the feeling the 26-year-old Cameroonian is getting comfortable with life in the U.S. « When you got cable in Cameroon, 40 or 50 people come over to your house at night to watch it, » Nkong said in Spanish through a translator. Spanish is one of four languages Nkong speaks. « It’s a big thing. »
Rapids coach Fernando Clavijo is hoping the same will be said of Nkong.
Signed during the offseason, Nkong is a versatile attacking player spotted by Clavijo during a scouting trip to Uruguay, where Nkong was languishing for a team that didn’t always pay his wages.
Fresh off his first Major League Soccer goal in Saturday’s 2-1 loss to the Chicago Fire, Nkong is hoping a successful stint in MLS will get him work somewhere closer to his home in Paris.
Clavijo expects Nkong to start in the midfield tonight as the Rapids (2-6-1) try to halt a two-game skid against San Jose (2-2-4) at Invesco Field at Mile High.
Nkong’s natural position is in the center of the field behind the strikers, playing as a withdrawn forward.
That was apparent after his equalizer against the Fire, as Nkong blazed down the middle of the field, played a give-and-go with striker Jeff Cunningham and thumped a shot past goalie Zach Thornton.
Cunningham calls Nkong a creative player with great vision, a finishing touch and understanding of the game.
« It’s very hard to find players nowadays that have the ability to create as well as score goals, » Cunningham said.
It’s also hard to find players with Nkong’s background.
Married to a French woman, Mireille, Nkong is about one year shy of a degree in law, a subject that interested him as a boy growing up in the impoverished neighborhood of Nkoldongo, located outside Younde, Cameroon’s capital.
Soccer allowed Nkong to leave Cameroon when he was a teenager, where life expectancy is less than 48 years, almost 50 percent of the population lives below the poverty line and 7 percent of adults are infected with HIV or AIDS.
Nkong has used his earnings to move his family into better neighborhoods and has establish a foundation that provides financial aid for kids seeking an education.
« With $2, a family of five can eat the entire day, » Nkong said. « The problem is there is no money. »
Nkong was on the Cameroon national team for its 2002 World Cup qualifiers and was a starter on his country’s Olympic team in 2000.
Aggressive and direct, Nkong has taken time to adjust to the MLS game and his teammates’ tendencies.
« I always say playing in this country is extremely difficult, » said Clavijo, who came to the U.S. from Uruguay. « It takes time, it takes understanding. He needs to understand the culture; he needs to understand what the referees are calling. »
Nkong has been issued three yellow cards this season for reckless fouls.
« I don’t understand how or where they come from, » Nkong said of refereeing decisions. « It’s definitely not at the same level that the game is at, so it’s difficult for us to do our job. »
By Brian Forbes, The Denver Post