The international World Cup Soccer tournament is at its conclusion and Netherlands and Spain are the final two teams. Africa, USA and South America are afterthoughts as their teams succumbed to the intense pressure and crazy game rules.
Just think, if Michael Jordan, Barry Sanders, Antonio Gates or Kobe Bryant played the sport as their first option. We have the athletes in America with speed, balance, height and athleticism to make plays. They are just not playing soccer in the numbers necessary to compete on the international stage.
Bryant was in South Africa as part of an event to celebrate the completion of Nike’s community training center. The purpose of the facility is to develop soccer talent and promote HIV/AIDS education.
Bryant was only ten days removed from winning his fifth NBA championship ring with the Los Angeles Lakers, and he was still on an emotional high.
“Five was tough,” he told reporter. “Six seems closer. If you ask me that next June, I might not have the same response, but I’m very thankful.”
Bryant arrived in South Africa, took a helicopter to Rustenberg and was at Royal Bafokeng Stadium to watch the US lose a 2-1 heartbreaker to Ghana in overtime. Much of Africa was happy. Bryant was not.
“I take it personally when we lose, when it comes to the USA,” Bryant said. Referring to his sport’s world championship, he added, “I wish I could physically be healthy to play in the world games and take the soccer team’s frustration out on these other countries in basketball. Hopefully, we can carry this momentum into the states as it pertains to soccer in the future.”
This, of course, becomes the million-dollar question each time the United States is bounced from a world competition. Can soccer in the United States successfully compete for the type of athletes who now play in the NBA and the NFL? How the United States could have used a Bryant — or two — on Saturday.
“All it takes is one,” Bryant said, and he might have been that person.
He moved to Italy when he was 6. His father, Joe Bryant, was playing basketball in the Italian league. Bryant has often said that had he stayed in Italy, he might have tried professional soccer. Instead, he moved back to the United States when he was 13.
“All it takes is one player, someone 6-foot-5, 6-6, who can move and do some other things,” Bryant said. “Someone who can come into the community, come into the league, really take it over and really capture the imagination of people.”
As Bryant spoke, I thought about the decisive scoring play by Asamoah Gyan of Ghana against the USA.
Gyan’s nickname is Baby Jet. Early in extra time, he took a long ball over the United States’ defense from his teammate, André Ayew. He raced between the American captain, Carlos Bocanegra, and Jay DeMerit. Gyan fought off Bocanegra’s bumping challenge, let the ball bounce, took a touch with his chest, outran DeMerit and fired a left-footed shot over goalkeeper Tim Howard from 20 yards out.
The play encapsulated what the United States needed. How do they go beyond these baby steps and compete? Bryant suggested an education blitz aimed at young people whose primary interests are football and basketball.
“I don’t think kids really understand the creativity that you can have playing soccer,” Bryant said. “I think they think you just kick a ball around, but if you watch clips of Ronaldinho you see some of the things you can do with that ball if you have imagination.”
Bryant said it was important for young people to see what they wanted to become.
“I think it’s seeing the future,” he said. “Our youth, growing up, see the NBA. You say, ‘I can be that.’ NFL, ‘I can be that,’ because it’s easily accessible…it’s a dream. In soccer, you don’t have that dream.
“The whole restaurant — waiters, waitresses, patrons and the bartender — clapped and cheered, jumping up and down, shouting ‘Ghana! Ghana!’ A vuvuzela blared from somewhere. People hugged. Some danced. I was awed by the sight.”
Leland Stein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.