Donovan: ĎIím Loyalí
Soccer America Magazine
Landon Donovan returned from the World Cup a national celebrity. In this exclusive interview he discusses his decision to stay in MLS, at least for now, and his upbringing in Southern California.
Interview By Ridge Mahoney
SOCCER AMERICA: What you did at the World Cup impressed people in Europe, yet you came back adamant you wanted to stay in MLS. Why?
LANDON DONOVAN: Iíve realized I can succeed at that level. People ask me, ďDonít you want to go try out in Europe, and see how it goes and see how special you can be?Ē- and blah, blah.
Iím just not that type of person. I donít need to score against Borussia Dortmund to say I can compete and I can be successful. Iíd much rather be happy. I think people are much too infatuated with success and trying to move up the ladder and worry too much about their profession.
Luckily, I have people around me who encourage me to just be happy.
SA: Did being at Bayer Leverkusen speed your development in any way? You were training and playing with good players.
LD: It helped a little bit. But for the most part it was such a sour experience in every aspect.
They were great to me. They did everything I wanted and they were very considerate. They let me go home at times and took care of my family.
But I almost wish it wasnít that way and I would have played or had a chance. Thatís all I ever wanted. I would have given away the other things for a chance to play.
SA: So it wasnít the fact it was Germany or Leverkusen, it was the fact you werenít playing?
LD: More or less. It didnít help I was in Germany, a country that isnít the most friendly in the world. The most frustrating part was I didnít get a chance.
All I can vouch for is these are the two things I can choose from:
Going to Germany for a year and a half, and for the most part being pretty miserable, not playing, being lonely at times and having homesickness at times; as compared to being here, playing California under the sun every day with great teammates and a fantastic coach [Frank Yallop], starting almost every game this year for the national team, playing a World Cup, scoring two goals in a World Cup, coming back to a team in first place and hopefully winning another championship, and going on all these talk shows.
Which would you rather have?
SA: Well, when you put it that wayÖ
LD: Iím one of most loyal people youíd ever want to meet. Would I want to give back to the German people or give back to the San Jose people right now? Who deserves it more?
SA: It doesnít have to be Leverkusen.
LD: Yean, but why should someone else benefit from what San Jose has done for me?
SA: Thatís a very mature, gracious attitude.
LD: People are so consumed with Alex Rodriguez Syndrome: ĎLetís leave a team that did so much for me.í Especially in soccer. Itís such a team sport. Without those guys, I might not have done so well.
Iím not trying to be modest. Diego Sernaís not having a great year. Without the players he had around him, heís struggling. Not to say heís not a great player, because I think heís fantastic, but itís just different circumstances.
SA: Last yearís MVP, Alex Pineda Chacon, has been on the bench most of the season in New England.
LD: Thatís another good example. Heís not even playing on that team.
SA: A move at some point isnít out of the question. Because you speak Spanish, you could go to countries where that language is common.
LD: Sure. I think that would be a lot more attractive than Leverkusen would be right now.
I could very well in a year or two years say I want to go to Spain, I want to go to Italy, I want to go to England. Who knows if that opportunity is going to be there, but thatís a chance I might want to take.
SA: You do interviews in Spanish as well as English and have translated for Bruce Arena at press conferences. How did you learn the language?
LD: Growing up [in Southern California] my club team was comprised mostly of Latino kids. A lot of them spoke English, but when they were around other Latino players theyíre not going to speak English, and on the field it was instinctual that they would always speak Spanish.
I just learned. I always wanted to pick up things they were saying and eager to learn. I picked up a lot of words. I had no idea about how to spell them, why they were said, how they were used in a sentence, anything, but I knew just a big chunk of words.
From the outset I would ask what a word meant. I must have been 8 or 9.
SA: There was nothing taught in school? All of this you picked up from your teammates?
LD: When I went to high school, everything started correlating, why this word is attached to this word. It really worked out well.
I never spoke Spanish at school until high school. My teacher in high school was great. The biggest thing is being able to communicate. If you go to Spain, nobody cares if you can write words. You need to speak and communicate.
Our teacher was very adamant about speaking constantly and she put a huge emphasis on it.
A lot of kids can write and read a language but canít speak it. Thatís useless. Starting at a young age helps a lot.
SA: Your mother is a teacher. Did she help you?
LD: No, not at all. Nobody in my family speaks Spanish. Everybody asks me that. Nobody in my family has any Latin descent.
She works in Fontana. Very impoverished, a lot of Latinos and African-Americans. She teaches learning-disabled kids. She probably doesnít know 10 words of Spanish, but she works with them constantly.
SA: Bruce is fortunate that he was playing you. Would you have mistranslated his statements if you were on the bench?
LD: (Laughing). That would have been fun. I could have killed him.
SA: Did all this experience with Latinos affect your development?
LD: Definitely. And also my coach, Clint Greenwood, was always focused on a lot of ball contact.
His theory was absolutely perfect: As a kid you need to touch the ball as much as you can. You should always be with the ball.
You should have a feeling that wherever the ball is, you can do anything with it. No matter where it is, where it is on your body, how itís spinning, how itís coming at you, the speed itís coming at you, anything.
You can learn the tactical side of the game later. Itís amazing to me that people put so much emphasis on trying to be tactical and worry about winning when it doesnít matter when youíre 12 years old.
He was way ahead of his time.
SA: You see that in the younger age groups. Players can run over people and win games, but a lot of them canít play soccer.
LD: Exactly. Itís sad. Thatís something thatís going to have to change if we want soccer in this country to develop.
Weíre going to have big, strong, fast players. Weíre Americans, weíre athletes. But if we never learn at an early age to be good on the ball, then itís just useless.
SA: Youíve talked about watching Magic Johnson and Wayne Gretzky as a youngster. What did you pick up from them?
LD: Mom would try to get me to go to sleep, but I would stay up and watch the games.
For me the worst attribute you can have as a player is to be selfish. Iíd watch someone like Magic, how he attacked a defense, and Gretzky more so because my dad is a huge hockey fan, and weíd always watch hockey. Gretzky is phenomenal.
Both of them were so dangerous and such good finishers, but at the same time could kill teams with a pass. I think thatís so important.
Oftentimes you get attacking midfielders who canít score, but they can pass the ball well, or you get a forward who canít pass the ball to save his life.
If you can mix both, if you can be equally good at both, youíre so much more dangerous. Thatís always the type of player I wanted to be.
SA: Your parents divorced when you were 2 and you lived with your mother. How much contact did you have with your father?
LD: I didnít see him as much as I would have liked, but we did spend time together.
When I was younger weíd go down to Ontario Ice Rink and watch my dad play hockey.
He was old. He would be like 40 playing with 25-year-olds and he couldnít skate with these guys, but he made passes and saw things.
You know when youíre watching a game from TV? You say, ďGive it there, give it there,Ē but the guy on the field doesnít see it. He always made that pass, always.
A lot of times you would see him make a pass and think, ďWhereís the hellís that going?Ē and boom, the guyís on the end of a breakaway and scores. I think thatís just a natural gift I get from him and his side of the family.
SA: Did seeing so many top players break down before the World Cup or struggle in the finals influence you to stay in America?
LD: Just the number of games is ridiculous. The greatest part about soccer is being able to get up for a big game. I felt that some of those German guys at Leverkusen who had played so many big games this year, it was like, ďOK, whatever.Ē
Every time I walk into the stadium I get goose bumps when I see 30,000 people an hour before kickoff in a 60,000-seat stadium. Thatís amazing. I donít ever, ever want to lose that.
SA: Youíre not going to see that in MLS.
LD: No, but youíll see it at national team games, and youíll see next year some sold-out stadiums, which is a great atmosphere. Youíll see it in L.A. next year. And in the qualifying youíll see it plenty.
You donít want to see it every week necessarily. When I play at Spartan Stadium, every time they yell my name or say my name over the loudspeaker, itís awesome. Thatís what itís about for me.
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