Column: Landon Donovan gets over being cut
Landon Donovan is going be honest here. He is going to be brutally honest. He knows this isn’t going to sound good, but the last few weeks have reminded him that only by mining the darkest moments can one discover his light.
Donovan is admitting that shortly after he was cut from the U.S. men’s World Cup team, he briefly rooted against them.
It was the end of May. It was a few days after the announcement that Donovan, the face of U.S. soccer and its all-time leading scorer, was being left off the World Cup roster. While watching the U.S. team take its first public steps without him in a warmup game against Azerbaijan, Donovan said he was overcome with a chilling jab of jealousy.
“I’ll be completely honest, watching them play Azerbaijan, inside, part of me was thinking, I hope the game doesn’t go very well today,” Donovan said Friday in a phone interview. “In my heart of hearts, I thought, if we get a 1-0 win and the team doesn’t perform well, that would feel good.”
Of course it would. Admit it, who among us hasn’t felt that way after being spurned by someone? We say we wish them the best, but, deep down, don’t we sometimes hope for the worst?
“Then the next day I woke up and said to myself, that’s a really crappy way to feel,” Donovan said. “That’s a bad way to live your life, it doesn’t help me, it doesn’t help the team, it doesn’t help the energy that the team needs.”
It was the beginning of what might be the most startling transformation in a U.S. World Cup effort filled with them. Despite having every reason to drown in bitterness, Landon Donovan has resurfaced with grace. The U.S. team’s missing star has never been more visible, their silenced leader never more inspirational, his dour situation booted away with a bicycle kick out of nowhere.
Have you seen him on ESPN? Instead of running from his pain, Donovan has actually embraced it by appearing as a pregame, halftime and postgame analyst. He has talked about goose bumps. He has talked about exhaustion. He has praised the young players who took his spot on the roster. He has shed any hard feelings to offer unique insight into strategy, psyche, and the strength of a star left behind.
“I love playing for that team, I love playing for this country, I’m not going to turn my back on them all of a sudden,” Donovan said.
Have you seen his EA Sports commercial? He actually pokes fun at his World Cup absence by padding around a house in a USA bathrobe and slippers while playing video games and singing, “I’m not going, I’m not going, I’m not going to Brazil.”
“I feel like I owe it to the sport to keep growing it,” Donovan said. “I can’t let what happened to me ruin three or four weeks of what could be an incredible experience for everyone.”
And, oh yeah, have you seen what he has done for the Galaxy since the snub? He’s played in three games and scored three goals while becoming Major League Soccer’s all-time leading scorer.
“My first game was difficult, very emotional, but this is my job, this is what they pay me to do,” Donovan said.
There is an old saying about how adversity doesn’t build character, it reveals it. Amid the biggest humiliation of his career, mild-mannered Landon Donovan has been a revelation.
“Life isn’t perfect, of course, but we all know it’s how you react to things that counts,” he said. “I did not want to let this define me.”
The initial reaction to the cutting of Donovan, 32, was mostly outrage. Though some experts agreed with U.S. Coach Juergen Klinsmann that the U.S team needed to get younger and more passionate, even hard-core soccer fans couldn’t understand how the team couldn’t benefit from the presence of a guy who has played in the most World Cup games in U.S. history.
Some thought Klinsmann was penalizing Donovan for taking a four-month sabbatical during World Cup qualifying. Others thought that Klinsmann just didn’t think he was tough enough under pressure, although Donovan’s famous winning goal against Algeria that advanced the U.S. to the knockout round of the 2010 World Cup should have ended that talk.
Whatever the reasoning, which was never truly revealed by Klinsmann, Donovan was clearly shaken by the news, saying at the time, “I respect the decision, I just feel in my heart that I deserve to be there, and that’s the pill that’s hardest to swallow.”
He says now that the pill continued to choke him. At first he wasn’t sure how he could watch the World Cup games without being overcome by bitterness. For one of the early-round games that did not involve the U.S., he actually put on a baseball cap and glasses and watched anonymously from a bar.
“I was sad, angry, upset, disappointed, some low days, not fun days,” he said. “As athletes, we all have egos, we all think we can help, and when you’re not given that chance, it’s hard to watch.”
Only when he finally agreed to submerge his ego for the benefit of his team and country did he finally come up for air. And then, much to his surprise, the revelations were all his.
“As athletes, most of the time we deal with fans cussing at us, saying how much we suck,” he said. “Suddenly all of that changed.”
The reviews of his ESPN work have been glowing. The reaction to his EA Sports commercial has been strong. And fans from all over the world have embraced him like never before.
“I remember one message from a Mexican fan who wrote, ‘I hated you my whole life, but what happened to you is wrong and disrespectful,”’ Donovan related. “My girlfriend said that a lot of times, you don’t hear things like this until you are dead.”
Perhaps it took his burial for it to happen, but Landon Donovan has never been more alive.