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June 2002 issue
Gear Magazine

America’s best soccer player could be sitting next to you right now. Would you know? "Someday, maybe I'll have to disguise myself, wearing the hat, the hooded sweatshirt, maybe even a fake mustache," Landon Donovan says wistfully.

Donovan is America's best soccer player; maybe the best the country has ever produced - the one that could finally vault American soccer onto the global stage. That's what Nike is hoping, anyway. The footwear giant that perfected sports marketing has thrown its resources behind a 20-year-old soccer prodigy from California. "It's Nike who believes in me," says the platinum-haired superstar-in- training.

And it's the international soccer community that's keeping an eye on him. He won the Golden Boot award as the best player at the 1999 FIFA under-17 World cup, and the applause has only gotten louder since then. Humbly, Donovan tries to explain why European soccer pundits, normally not so approving of American players, are showering him with acclaim. "I feel my best attribute is my instinct, a natural gift that I am fortunate to have," he says. "I'm just in the right place, or I see things that maybe other people don't see." Sports legends like Wayne Gretzky and Larry Bird talk about being able to feel the game, but for Donovan it is something different. "It's more that I see. I know where people are going to be," he says. "I recognize where every player on the field wants the ball, how they want it played to them, and its not necessarily something I need to work on. I'm lucky."

On the topic of the planet's biggest sporting event, the 2002 World Cup, Donovan is excited and optimistic. The pace of his speech accelerates. Playing in the World Cup is the ultimate dream of every player, and the US team, which finished a disappointing last out of 32 teams in France '98, has something to prove. "I think we can be the biggest revelation at the World Cup," he says. "Anything can happen. I don't think we're afraid of any teams or feel outclassed by anyone. Everyone's there to win it, but we're realistic."

Donovan's "realistic" approach is apparent in his opinions of America's opening-round opponents. "Portugal is a very talented, very gifted team," he says. "I'd say they're easily one of the top ten teams in the world. They have a lot of classy players. And they obviously have good team chemistry, as they've shown in Europe. That said, I think they are a beatable team." South Korea is more worrisome for Donovan than the Portuguese. "Playing the South Koreans is much more difficult than even playing a powerful team like Italy, because they're always around the ball," Donovan explains. "The Koreans are just relentless. They will be difficult to beat, especially in front of their home fans. I don't think anybody they play against has a great game." The last match of the first round, against Poland, is the match that will probably decide the Americans' fate. "I don't know a whole lot about them. They'll be difficult, but I think they're beatable," he says.

Even if the Americans do not make the splash Donovan dreams of, he still feels the US is making progress. "Every time I go home, I'm always going to soccer fields. I watch games- even training sessions- and the players are unbelievable. I never, ever did things they do at that age. I couldn't even fathom it." What he doesn't realize is that those very same kids may well be getting their inspiration from watching him.

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