Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
American icon will be missed
Donovan often misunderstood, but was always true to himself
Four months ago, I asked Landon Donovan about his retirement plans.
Having recently turned 32, the Los Angeles Galaxy forward was about to set the all-time goal-scoring mark in Major League Soccer and was eagerly anticipating the upcoming World Cup.
As we talked, it was clear the American soccer icon was keenly aware of his legacy, in the sort of way an accomplished writer would be as he prepared his memoirs.
But I didn't sense an imminent decision, and at the time I don't think he did, either.
"If I stop enjoying it, it's time to stop," he told me.
Five weeks later, Donovan was a shock omission from the United States national team -- his rocky relationship with manager Jurgen Klinsmann the likely reason why he was left behind as his former teammates travelled to Brazil.
"I am very disappointed with today's decision," he remarked via his Facebook page when the roster was announced.
Other players were "just a step ahead of Landon in certain areas," explained Klinsmann.
-- Landon Donovan
"I don't agree with Jurgen Klinsmann's assessment," countered Donovan.
Three days later, he found the back of the net against Philadelphia Union to establish an MLS record of 135 goals, and he added a second in the same match for good measure.
It wasn't a case of "point proven;" it was simply Landon being Landon -- speaking open and honestly and then going out and playing some first-rate soccer.
Klinsmann, I believe, never came around to that. He never really understood Donovan, and at times I think he despised him.
I can identify.
As he struggled to make an impact in Europe, feuded with David Beckham and embarked on a sudden sabbatical in 2012 that took him out of World Cup qualifying, my feelings about the man were equal parts embarrassment, irritation and disappointment.
He should have starred at the highest level of the game, or so the thinking went among like-minded observers who wished nothing more than to see an American soccer player blaze a trail in the Bundesliga and Champions League.
He shouldn't have picked a fight with the likeable and universally respected David Beckham, and he most certainly should have played through what he later described as a "difficult mental place."
What a hypocrite I was -- we were.
What Donovan was giving us, and gave us once again on Thursday when he announced that he would retire at season's end, was a glimpse into his own humanity, offered up for everyone to see.
Here was an athlete that, unlike so many of his dreary, colourless peers, saw his life as a journey that didn't begin with soccer, was never going to be governed by soccer and would never end with soccer.
It was, in the fullest meaning of the word, a life. His life.
It wasn't failure-free, as the letdown of Bayern Munich can attest; it wasn't mistake-free, and his slagging off of Beckham was quite certainly a mistake.
But it was lived, and is being lived, without regrets. If only more of us could say the same.
When Donovan abruptly disappeared from the soccer map in 2012 it was because, as he later told the Los Angeles Times, he had a "gut feeling" he needed to prioritize his mental and emotional wellness.
So he entered therapy, meditated, travelled and likely read a lot of books and listened to a lot of music. Then, feeling better, he came back.
It was behaviour that struck as odd in a super-macho sports culture, but Donovan was clearly unconcerned with those primitive, prehistoric typecasts. He was above them and was going to continue being above them, even if it signalled a fallout with Klinsmann.
"I don't think that Jurgen Klinsmann understands who Landon Donovan is as a player or as a person," remarked former United States international Alexei Lalas back in May.
Admittedly, for the longest time I didn't, either. But my thinking has come around; it has evolved and matured as Donovan has evolved and matured.
Life, as he, himself, would tell you, is a process -- a journey meant to reveal you to yourself, and in retirement Donovan will have a surer sense of himself than countless athletes who go through the motions before withdrawing into emptiness.
"I look forward to making a difference, pursuing my passions and meeting all of you along the way in this next phase of my life," he wrote on Thursday, again on his Facebook page.
"With gratitude," he signed off.
From us, too.
email@example.com Twitter @JerradPeters
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 9, 2014 C9
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