Umenyiora appreciates soccer in Atlanta

Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank wasn’t just trying to appeal to the gathered crowd when he talked about veteran defensive end Osi Umenyiora being born with a soccer ball in his crib.

As Blank stood at the podium Wednesday to introduce his new Major League Soccer team to Atlanta, he made the brief reference to acknowledge Umenyiora’s presence in the audience. And Blank was right on point with his assessment.

``How old was I when I started playing soccer? As soon as I came out of my mother’s womb,’’ Umenyiora said. ``That’s just how it is in Nigeria and England and all those places that I grew up. It’s all about soccer. I’ve been playing soccer my whole life.’’

Such background made the London-born Nigerian the ideal figure to represent the Falcons at the unveiling of the yet-to-be-named soccer team. The Atlanta franchise will begin play in 2017, when a new stadium opens its doors to the Falcons, soccer and other venues.

Umenyiora and teammate Sean Weatherspoon were part of Wednesday’s welcoming party. While Weatherspoon proclaimed himself a fan of the sport, Umenyiora actually grew up playing soccer in both London and Nigeria until he came to the United States at the age of 15 and took up American football.

He didn’t grow up wanting to be the next Reggie White or Lawrence Taylor. He idolized Diego Maradona and Pele.

``We also had the Nigerian players like Jay-Jay Okocha, who was a great player for us, and Rashidi Yekini, another great player for us,'' he said. ``There are just so many players that I grew up idolizing, so it would be hard to mention them all.’’

Umenyiora said his natural position in soccer was striker until he started to grow taller and get heavier, then he became a defender. He still plays pick-up games every now and then.

``If you know the rules of the game -- you know somebody from Nigeria can watch [American] football and think it’s boring,’’ Umenyiora explained. ``But if you know exactly what’s going on when you watch it, it’s an exciting game. The same goes with soccer. So the people that really know about soccer, the score might be 1-1 or 0-0, but it could still be a very, very exciting game.’’

Umenyiora believes there will be a high level of interest in the Atlanta franchise. He attended the Mexico-Nigeria match in March, a contest that drew 68,000-plus fans to the Georgia Dome.

``Atlanta has the demographics, with a lot of Africans and a lot of Hispanics who really enjoy the game,’’ Umenyiora said. ``I think it will be great for Atlanta to have a soccer team here. I want to be involved.’’

So is Umenyiora thinking about owning a soccer team in the future?

``That’s a little bit too expensive for my taste,’’ Umenyiora said with laugh. ``Maybe I’ll be a GM or something of the Atlanta team. I know soccer. I think that would be awesome.’’