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Interesting Article on U20 World Cup


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From London's Financial Times.

Prodigy must shine more than soccer's lost boys

By Simon Kuper

Published: November 21 2003 18:12 | Last Updated: November 21 2003 18:12

I asked James Will, a Scottish policeman, what he thought of Freddy Adu. "Who's he, then?" Will responded.

Adu is a 14-year-old American soccer player hailed as the new Pelé. This week he signed his first contract with DC United in the US. He should achieve the rare double of playing professional football and graduating from high school before he turns 15. But first it is worth introducing James Will, because his story gives a sense of Adu's chances of becoming Pelé.

Will was Scotland's goalkeeper in the under-17s World Cup final in 1989. They lost to Saudi Arabia in front of a crowd of 50,000 at Hampden Park, but Will received the Golden Ball as the competition's best player. "I didn't know there was such a thing until I'd actually won it," he recalls by telephone from the Highlands. "It looks nice on the mantelpiece, that's the one thing."

At 31, Will should now be at his keeping peak. But he plays for Turriff United, his village team. What went wrong? "I dunno, mate. The wrong career moves was one thing."

Will joined Arsenal at 16, "a guy from north-east Scotland who was hundreds of miles away from anybody. However well a club looks after you, they can't replace your family." He stayed five years, spent a season at Dunfermline, and then quit. "I got a bit disillusioned with football. If one or two persons didn't like you, it could affect your livelihood."

Did he make the most of his talent? "I probably didn't. It was a pity that at 17 I didn't have the head I have now. You take an awful lot for granted at that age. You don't actually realise what is happening."

Does he regret anything? "Certainly not. If I didn't take the course I'd taken, I wouldn't have married the person I have, and I wouldn't have these two lovely kids."

What does he advise Adu? "He's really got to treat every game as if it was his last and put everything into it."

Will is fairly typical of Golden Ball winners of the Under-17s World Cup. Other laureates include Philip Osundo of Nigeria, William de Oliveira of Brazil and Oman's Mohammed Al Kathiri, none of whom I had ever heard of. Another, the Ghanaian Nii Lamptey, hailed at 15 as the new Pelé, is now 28 and playing out an unhappy career in the United Arab Emirates. The adult Lamptey turned out to be the wrong shape for soccer.

The only under-17s Golden Ball winner to enjoy much subsequent success is the American Landon Donovan, who impressed at the last World Cup, but, aged 21, he remains with the San Jose Earthquakes. Cesc, the Spaniard who won the award this summer, is now a 16-year-old at Arsenal, hundreds of miles from home.

On Wednesday Adu, who despite being so young played brilliantly at the Under-17 World Cup, was presented to the press at New York's Madison Square Garden. A video loop showed him scoring cartoon-like goals at the tournament: a stocky figure endlessly dribbling through entire defences, a sort of black Maradona.

More surprising though, was Adu the man. Probably the world's best footballer of his age, he is undoubtedly the world's most mature person of his age. Before the television cameras he gave a long fluent speech without notes in which he thanked everyone, but particularly his mother. She had taken Adu and his brother to the US from Ghana after winning a green card in a lottery six years ago. She did it to give the boys a better education. In Potomac, Maryland, she had worked 70 hours a week at two jobs. This was the American dream, pure.

Beaming at the tearful woman in the front row, Adu said: "We've been through some tough times, Mom, and here's your son, standing right here, smiling back at you. Thanks a lot, Mom. I love you." There wasn't a dry eye in the press conference.

Adu spoke with more articulacy than I have heard from any adult England player. He revealed that he still makes his bed and takes out the garbage. He scorned the idea of hiring a cleaning lady, even now that he has signed a contract with Nike worth $1m (£588,000) over four years, and will earn similar amounts playing for DC United, his local professional team - until he is 18.

"Be humble," is his mantra. " 'Normal' is like me," he elaborated. "Always smiling, playing video games, talking trash back and forth with my friends. There are more important things in life than soccer."

Clearly he may not make it, but Adu is exactly what US soccer needs to compete with the country's bigger sports. Americans are getting a little tired of their athletes going on strike, shooting limousine drivers, and blowing their fortunes on defence lawyers. Finding heroes can be hard.

The day after the press conference, the US picked him for the under-20 World Cup, which kicks off in the UAE on Thursday. Perhaps Lamptey will be watching.

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