Landon Donovan: Life and how to live it

When it comes to Landon Donovan, I have to admit a bit of bias — one that goes beyond the typical reporter’s bias of having good interview experiences. Sure, he’s been helpful whenever I’ve talked with him, from a USA TODAY chat in 2000 (he had to delay to drive his sister to school) to a 2009 cover story in which he talked frankly about his relationships with everyone: David Beckham, Bianca Kajlich, even Eric Wynalda. He’s consistently one of the most interesting people in U.S. soccer. (Men’s soccer, especially.)

My bias stems more from being able to relate to decisions he has made that have puzzled other people. He has put family and his own well-being first. I get that. It’s why I’m no longer a full-time employee of a large national newspaper. It’s why I turned down opportunities to do techie-type things in journalism and opted instead to keep putting words together in this thing … what’s it called … oh, right … writing.

Ever since he won the Golden Ball at the U-17 World Cup in 1999, Donovan was supposed to be a big star in Europe. He was supposed to lead the U.S. national team to greener pastures.

To an extent, he’s done both. No one can deny his impact in the 2002 and 2010 World Cups or in plenty of vital qualifiers along the way, and he was a key player in the 2009 Confederations Cup that stands as the most stunning U.S. men’s performance since 1950. The European breakthrough finally came, albeit on a short-term basis at Everton.

But for some people, it has never been enough. Over the years, he always had to defend his choice to play in MLS instead of Europe. If he disappeared in a game, it was a calamity or proof that he was just softer than everyone else.

Frankly, he’s more courageous than most. The U.S. soccer community still heaps immense pressure on every prodigy, perhaps because we’re not used to having them. It’s far healthier to fly under the radar and emerge in MLS, a la Clint Dempsey. But no one has faced the level of scrutiny Donovan has faced, something the women’s soccer community and journalists should remember before making ridiculous “double standard” arguments about Hope Solo.

As Donovan matured and that hairline crept backwards like a U.S. goalkeeper’s, he started to exude more California Zen. He talked about living in the moment and not trying to please everyone. It was a classic example of separating the substantial from the insubstantial in his own life.

And it’s something we all need to do in our lives. The “substantial” in this case is the enjoyment derived from watching soccer. The “insubstantial” is micromanaging someone else’s life to suit our needs. Soccer folks have done the latter on a smaller scale, too — a lot of fans took issue with Jordan Cila going to Duke instead of going pro. Donovan has dealt with it throughout his career.

Criticism of his play is one thing. He’s as harsh on himself as anyone — at least, anyone reasonable. He has had bad games, domestically and internationally. He has gone through bad spells. The psychoanalysis has gone over the top.

After all these years, Donovan still isn’t doing what people would expect or like. He would seem to have an opportunity to transfer to Everton — if they could afford him. Instead, he may follow in the footsteps of Jim Brown, Mia Hamm and other athletes who have left the stage when they clearly have more to offer.

Soccer America‘s Mike Woitalla hopes he doesn’t step away. So do I. So, surely, does Galaxy coach Bruce Arena. So does Jurgen Klinsmann, if he has started to appreciate that CONCACAF World Cup qualifying isn’t the cakewalk he was expecting.

But that decision is Donovan’s alone. If it frustrates you, or if you think you would surely act differently in his shoes, you might need to follow his example and reassess your own priorities.

Headline inspired by some old-school R.E.M., when they shot incomprehensible art-school videos and Michael Stipe had shaggy hair:

Book review: ‘Chasing the Game’

I’m thrilled to see two books on American soccer history being released in the same month. I’m absolutely biased in saying that, of course, because one of them is mine.

The other is Filip Bondy’s look at the U.S. men’s national team, Chasing the Game, which weaves recent and ancient history to tell the story of the team as it heads into the World Cup.

Bondy uses the same narrative device Jere Longman used in The Girls of Summer, flipping back and forth from chapter to chapter between the main story and background pieces on a particular player or some piece of history. It can be a little hard to follow, especially if you put the book down for a few days and come back to it, but it’s more interesting than giving a few chapters on history and then getting into the 2008-09 qualifying campaign.

Adam Spangler has taken Bondy to task for a few bits of questionable analysis. Such is the subjective nature of a sport that can’t be easily quantified in stats, though some news junkies may also disagree with his depiction of the Honduran political crisis of 2009. (Yes, it’s relevant to his story.)

Spangler also points out something else that brings us to the Great Dilemma of the Soccer Writer in Mainstream Media (GDSWMSM?): Am I writing for soccer fans, a more general audience or some mix of the two? Those of us who have been compelled to write an explanation of the U.S. Open Cup every time it’s mentioned in passing can empathize.

Bondy splits the difference, and it’s hard to argue with that. Heading into a World Cup, fans need different levels of edumacating. Some fans have no idea about the 1950 USA-England game or the intricacies of World Cup qualification. Some already know Landon Donovan’s and Walter Bahr’s biographies in detail.

What I always tried at USA TODAY was to include some detail, some anecdote or some quote that was unique. Bondy offers plenty of that. He fleshes out our image of U.S. coach Bob Bradley, showing him to be even more detail-obsessed than any of us imagined. For each qualifying game and each player described in detail, he has something most people didn’t know or hadn’t considered.

And Bondy is nothing if not thorough. He saw the qualifiers, and he interviewed the key participants. He goes back in history and talks with 1950 World Cup star Walter Bahr about the USA-England matchup of that year and this year. As U.S. World Cup histories go, he has a word from everyone except Bert Patenaude, who passed away 35 years ago.

Having been through the publishing process, I’m impressed that the book has come together so quickly. Six months before the review copy arrived, we weren’t even sure if the USA would make the trip to South Africa. In the book world, particularly outside the major publishing houses, six months is a tight deadline.

If the book seems rushed, though, it’s still worth the effort. It’s a great way to relive the ups and downs of qualifying while learning a bit more about what happened.

I’m again a little biased in the sense that I enjoyed reading about a few things I had witnessed first-hand, particularly the ad-hoc viewing party in which several reporters gathered around Sunil Gulati’s laptop in a Beijing sports bar to watch the USA win in Guatemala. But a lot of fans have their own memories that they’ll enjoy revisiting. And if you don’t remember anything that was written here, you need to read this book before June 12.

Book review: ‘A Beautiful Game’

The first thing you’ll notice about A Beautiful Game is that it’s a beautiful book. The photography is rich and diverse — a treasured pair of dirty boots in Liberia, a youth clinic in Cambodia, a junkyard kickabout in Brazil, Fabio Cannavaro with a medal in Germany. Flip through the pages, and the scenes are as vibrant as the made-for-HD Planet Earth and Life TV series. Put the book on a coffee table, and you may find visitors flipping through it regardless of their level of soccer interest.

The text of the book is a collection of essays from mostly famous players around the world, all telling their stories of how they grew up with the game. The 41 essayists include some of the world’s biggest names — Lionel Messi, Luis Figo, Franck Ribery (unfortunate timing, given his current scandal) and Cannavaro. Yet coincidentally or not, Major League Soccer is well-represented. Landon Donovan is the chosen American. Former MLS players Ivan Guerrero, Claudio Suarez, Carlos Ruiz and Ryan Nelsen contribute along with current Chivas USA teammates Ante Jazic and Maykel Galindo.

Best of all these is a riveting introduction from David Beckham about a UNICEF visit to Sierra Leone. Beckham talks openly of his fear of being overwhelmed by the conditions he would find on his visit, but as he tells it, he left the country full of hope after greeting families with hugs — and a football. The introduction sets the tone: No matter the circumstances, football gives children hope and joy. Five percent of the book’s proceeds will go to UNICEF sports projects.

The downside is that the stories, though they’re drawn from diverse countries, tend to sound the same after a while. Whether they’re playing on the streets of Honduras or in a club in Finland, the players all talk of playing until sundown and forging their happiest memories kicking about with their friends. Browse through the book in several sittings, and this disadvantage is quickly forgotten.

Yet the book has a deeper drawback. As inclusive as it is for people of different national origins, economic backgrounds and faiths, it’s not gender-inclusive. Women are barely visible — a shot of the U.S. team celebrating stands out as the reader flips through pages and pages of boys and men. How much would we love to read the story of Brandi Chastain picking up the game as girls were first encouraged to play in the USA? Or Marta, learning to play in a culture less accommodating to women’s soccer? (Or so we think.)

That’s the one major oversight. Otherwise, this fine book opens the reader’s eyes to the world, not with sad and shocking tales but with inspirational stories of global joy.

The details: A Beautiful Game, edited by Tom Watt, HarperOne (imprint of HarperCollins), release May 2010

The marketing of Landon Donovan

If you stopped by the soccer page at Yahoo! yesterday, you saw this video link: “Landon Donovan gets mad at a reporter.”

Naturally, I clicked — Donovan isn’t the type to blow up at anyone. He’s heard it all before. At worst, you’ll get a mildly sarcastic answer, not hostility.

The video paints a different picture:

If it seems unbelievable, well, it is. Donovan has plenty of experience answering inane questions. And it’s hard to imagine a reporter asking about Gatorade unless it was a precondition of the interview. (Many reporters decline those preconditions.) In any case, there’s no way a question on Gatorade would send someone over the edge.

So it’s clever, though not as clever as this ad for a Mexican lottery:

Hard to imagine, say, Cuauhtemoc Blanco landing a similar ad deal in the USA.

If you’re looking for the more thoughtful side of Donovan, try this LATimes interview in which he talks a bit about attitudes toward the game in different cultures.

In the meantime, we’ll wonder what it’ll take to get soccer players back in shampoo commercials (skip to the 6:48 mark):