Young, good looking, talented and American…, except for a bit of spice, perhaps, Landon Donovan has all the ingredients to make him the first true American soccer superstar. But the kid from southern California is prepared to risk it all for a quiet and happy life. FIFA.com caught up with the US’ star of the 2002 FIFA World Cup Korea/Japan™ ahead of the crucial clash against Brazil in Lyon to listen to a refreshing perspective on fame and fortune.
The face of football would change dramatically if the game’s popularity exploded in the United States. Twelve months ago it nearly did when the Stars and Stripes were a whisker away from making it to the semi-finals of the ultimate competition. One of the chief architects of that success was the then 20-year-old Donovan.
“My life has definitely changed in the last year,” says the San Jose Earthquakes star. “It’s good to be recognised and that people are aware of me. I can’t walk down the street and go unnoticed in San Jose so I normally wear a cap, but in most other places I can, which is nice.
Fruit and veg
“I don’t like to be bothered when I’m going to the grocery store, like the baseball players and basketball stars are. You don’t want to be unable to go somewhere because of who you are, so we’re a little bit lucky in that sense. Of course, the financial difference is the downfall.”
Having spent a number of years in the youth team and on the bench for German Bundesliga side Bayer Leverkusen, Donovan is in no hurry to rush back to Europe despite a number of enticing financial offers tabled since his stunning performances in the Far East.
“I don’t think about the future until I get asked,” says a relaxed Donovan. “I love what I do. I have this season and the next with the Earthquakes. After that, who knows? I’m not a psychic. I don’t what’s going to happen. I could stay in America, go to Leverkusen or to Spain or somewhere else, everything’s open at the moment. I want the right decision, the right situation.
“I didn’t get to play at Leverkusen and I didn’t want to continue going through that. I don’t feel obligated to move abroad. I just want to be happy. If I’m going to decide to go somewhere so far from home again, I want to know that I’m going to have a chance to play.”
And if Real Madrid came in with a tempting offer?
“I don’t know how I’m going to get on the field,” he laughs. “I don’t know if it’s worth it.”
Jewels and numbers
Instead the player is prepared to sacrifice a kingdom of jewels in the hope Major League Soccer will finally take off.
“I hope the level of play gets better in the MLS. But the thing is we’re improving. People forget that basketball, baseball and hockey took time to catch on in the United States. Whether I can wait around long enough for soccer to do so I don’t know,” he says with a wry smile. “People want success now, but there was a time when nobody watched those sports. I think there has been more interest in soccer since the World Cup. If we had won it, I’m sure it would have exploded. Our ratings increased for each game we played: Portugal, Korea, Poland, Mexico and then Germany was huge. If we’d won again, who knows what would have happened.”
In football terms, Donovan was a late developer. He didn’t really stand out until his early teens when he was greatly influenced by USA 94 and the performances of his idol Roberto Baggio. But the American is worried that football overkill is destroying such creative players in the game.
Legal and able
“I think there’s too much football being played at the moment. I saw some highlights the other day on TV from the 70s and 80s. There’s so much space on the ball. I would have loved to play then,” he smiles.
“But today the creative players suffer because of the number of games, the speed of the game, its physical aspects, the grabbing and holding that goes on. It’s definitely much harder if you’re a creative player. It’s also difficult to see how things could change. More decisions could be called but that upsets the flow of the game too.”
Having just turned 21, Landon Donovan is now legally able to have a drink in America. For the immediate future at least, he is most likely to take the odd cold beer hanging out by the pool under the pleasant Californian sun. But should he sparkle once again to lead the US to glory in the Confederations Cup, who knows how long he can last before those offers become too good to refuse.