So Landon Donovan has had his special day ... and I cannot think of anyone involved in soccer in this country who more deserves to be honored in this way.
It has always been a delight to watch Donovan in action (well, OK. I'll make an exception for all that penalty kick rigmarole), just as it has always been interesting to hear his opinions.
I doubt whether the USA has ever produced another player as good as Donovan. Certainly not since 1967, the days of the old North American Soccer League, the date that really marks the beginning of the "modern era" in the U.S. game.
Of course, "produced" is not the right word. It makes the process of nurturing a player sound like a mechanical production line, and the importance and the beauty of Donovan as a player is that he stands out as a living contradiction to all those who see "youth development" as primarily a matter of coaching, of lessons taught and lessons learned … all of it according to the book.
Whichever book might happen to be in vogue, that is. It doesn't matter which one -- all of them bring the stultifying influence of orthodoxy, the impersonality of the production line.
Donovan, somehow, escaped all of that. He was, of course, much too good for it. The soccer background in Donovan's life was zero. If there is such a thing as a soccer gene, then it had been biding its time, invisible for generations in Donovan's ancestors.
The gene, the gift, the talent -- whatever it is -- flowered wondrously in Landon. Everything was immediately right -- from the smooth, light-footed running style, the balance, the body swerves, to the comfort on the ball and on to the more personal qualities of a quick-thinking soccer brain and an instinct for the patterns of the game that has added artistry to the intricacy and the precision of his passing.
His personality has sometimes been hard to fathom. He has occasionally seemed rather prickly, but not overly so. Nobody really expects sports stars to be pillars of rectitude, but Donovan has been better than most. When you look at his extraordinary list of titles, awards and achievements, you're bound to ask yourself whether he's ever allowed whatever personal problems he may have had to affect his game. We know that it has -- that sabbatical that he took -- but by then Donovan was the captain of his soul, the master of his fate, he knew what he needed to do. And he came back as good as ever.
In his younger days -- the troubled time as a teenager in Germany with Bayer Leverkusen -- Donovan had the air of a Lost Boy, puzzled by what was happening to him, needing help and guidance, and not getting it. A discouraging episode, but the strength of Donovan's will was what allowed him to overcome the problems. Years later, with his excellent play for Everton, he thoroughly squelched the canard that he had fled Europe because he wasn't good enough.
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Why would anyone doubt his fortitude, when he went on to become the best we've ever seen? And so we come to the only negative part of this celebration of Donovan. Because one man, one important man, clearly did doubt Donovan's resolve. That man was Jurgen Klinsmann.
His decision to omit Donovan from this year's World Cup roster was a thoroughly squalid snub which cannot be justified by any soccer reasoning. Of course Donovan should have been in Brazil. In the absence of any soccer reason (it is worse; Klinsmann's decision actually flies in the face of soccer reasoning) then I have to assume that personal factors clouded Klinsmann's judgment. And that is not the way that a coach should be operating.
Having made an utterly dreadful decision, Klinsmann now proves himself not brave enough to admit his error. Just listen to him: "You always make a decision based on what you see in that specific moment in time. In that moment in May the picture for us was very clear and we were 100 percent behind the decision we made. I wouldn't make any other decision, and we proved that point in Brazil."
For undiluted hogwash, that's quite a performance. So you never take a player's record into consideration? (Something that would interest Italy's Enzo Bearzot, for one. He took Paolo Rossi -- coming straight from serving a long suspension -- and it was Rossi's goals that won the 1982 World Cup for Italy).
There is confusion, too, in the pronouns Klinsmann uses. First, it is the decision "we" made, but the final sentence introduces "I" as the decision maker. But it is the parting shot that exposes Klinsmann's departure from reality. Back comes the "we" pronoun (maybe Klinsmann is by now convinced that the royal "we" suits him best): "... we proved that point in Brazil."
Klinsmann proved nothing in Brazil. His team, artificially padded with its posse of supposedly superior pseudo-Americans, did no better than Bob Bradley's team in 2010, and not as well as Bruce Arena's team in 2002.
That's all history, but evidently history that Klinsmann knows still needs to be explained.
So, at precisely the moment when he should be keeping quiet about his lack of judgment -- at a precious moment that should belong to Donovan and his glittering career -- at exactly that moment, Klinsmann chooses to do what? To criticize Donovan.
Talking of Donovan's superb career, Klinsmann told ESPN "I think it could have gone even further than that ... as a coach, you always want to see a player that drives for his 100 percent ... I wished in a certain way he could have done a bit more here and a bit more there."
Let's not be in any doubt about this. Klinsmann is accusing Donovan of lacking ambition, of not working hard enough to constantly improve his game. Well, that's Klinsmann for you. He has told us before how hard it was for him, how hard he had to work on his game ... so, apparently, he cannot bear the thought of a player who might have attained super-star status without all the sweat and grind that Klinsmann tells us of.
Klinsmann is fully entitled to that rather self-glorifying opinion. But, surely, he ought to know enough to keep those thoughts to himself, to stifle his evident problem with Donovan being widely hailed for the true star that he is. A star who has done massively more for the American game than Klinsman will ever do.
This was Donovan's shining hour. Klinsmann should have kept his mouth shut. For him to imagine that it was OK to contaminate the tributes with his petty carpings reveals an unpleasantly high degree of egotism.
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But the sour words of Klinsmann are no way to close this topic. I began with the beauty of Donovan's play, and that's a good way to close matters. Trying to recall a Donovan highlight is a bit perplexing when you're dealing with a player who always produced top level soccer. I can choose one episode -- but not for the obvious reason. That climactic goal against Algeria in 2010. I'm not choosing it because it was a vital World Cup goal, or because it shot the USA to the top of its group. I choose it because it was so perfectly, so smoothly, so beautifully executed. Everything neat and precise and quick, none of it betraying any nerves or frantic hurry, all of it imbued with the elegance and grace that only soccer's best players exhibit. The artistry of a master-craftsman. What we had come to expect from Landon Donovan.
For that -- so easy to say, so beautiful to watch, but so hard to achieve -- let me add just one more heart-felt thank you to Landon Donovan. The best.