Friday, August 1, 2008
I've been accused of being thin-skinned, and I probably am in certain respects. Perhaps, then, I can relate a bit to Neven Subotic.
I'm not surprised that Neven has serious doubts about playing for the U.S. and is likely to want to suit up for another country instead.
I met a teen-aged Neven in Peru at the 2005 U17 World Cup, when he was playing for the U.S. Despite his youth, he was on the quiet, somewhat serious side. He spoke English with only a trace of a European accent.
The same hotels would often house multiple squads and I remember being amused at the contrast between the U.S. and the other teams. The Italians, for example, all looked like one extended family, tall, athletic, with classic Latin features. They tended to group together, eating only food prepared for them by a team chef. Turkey, another squad sharing a later hotel, had similarly tall players, but with wilder hair and darker eyes. Each delegation of players and support staff had a certain look that was readily identifiable.
The Americans were recognizable only by their variety and lack of a certain typecast. They were a hodge-podge of ethnicities, sizes and personalities. Some of the louder jokesters could be heard rooms away. Some were very social, signing autographs for Peruvian fans and trying out their high school Spanish with the locals. Some were the epitome of mellow, lounging in the lobby with headphones and music.
The hotel kitchen marveled that the U.S. players would eat practically anything - they were the only team at the hotel who didn't request a special menu. I did notice a couple of players whose meals seemed to be grilled chicken and french fries practically every day.
Though Neven didn't appear super-close to anyone on the team (at least, not like the "we're brothers" bond of Preston Zimmerman and Quavas Kirk), he seemed another part of the group that was united by a common purpose and cause.
Of course, though, he was different, and not just because he was born elsewhere. Neven was the only player who didn't live at the U17 residency at Bradenton, because well, he already lived in Bradenton with his family. Neven would join the team for practices, but then go home to his family, missing out on the experiences of having teammates as roommates. That probably put him at least a little bit on the outside of things.
I recall at one point at a hotel, David Arvizu passed by with the Farfan brothers, chattering away in Spanish. Neven was nearby and he looked after them a little forlornly. "Why do they do that?" he said to no one in particular. "They do it on the field sometimes, too. Not everybody speaks Spanish. Why can't they speak English so we all understand?"
I almost laughed - the Spanish speakers on the team had been doing interviews in that language, generating a lot of press and goodwill for the squad, and also translating for teammates who wanted to go shopping and out on the town. Why was it a big deal if they lapsed into conversation in a way they felt comfortable?
On the other hand, one look at Neven's earnest face convinced me that he felt left out. This was a kid who spoke three languages, who had already traveled the world with his family, not to play in tournaments, but to try to find a home. He was trying to fit in with this American team, and it frustrated him when he couldn't share in certain experiences.
Neven wasn't on the U17 U.S. squad's regular starting eleven. Coach John Hackworth spoke of Neven's skill on the ball and his tactical ability, but it was plain to see that Neven was still gawky and not as athletically developed as some other players. However, partly due to injuries and suspension, Neven was playing in the decisive knockout match versus the Netherlands. Neven didn't play badly, but he was often stranded against the Dutch attack. He ended up getting two yellow cards and was ejected from the game. While I heard from many that his second foul looked rash (there was no video in the Peruvian press box)Neven was defiant when I interviewed him, saying he didn't even think his tackle was a foul. He was clearly crushed about the U.S. team's loss and elimination. "I did the best I could," he answered softly when I asked him if he felt pressure against the heavily-favored Dutch.
While someone might wonder why Neven would care what Thomas Rongen says or thinks, it strikes me as part of his character to be sensitive about something like that, regardless of the fact that Rongen is the U.S. coach of a limited age group that presumably Neven has passed. Besides, it's possible that Rongen had a point in his observation - at that time. Neven could take it as a point of honor that he has improved since then.
Actually, I had thought the Olympic team might be perfect for Neven's return to the U.S. ranks. Nowak speaks German well. Sacha might even know a little bit of Serbian, too, giving Neven a chance to crack some jokes in that language if he so desires.
Yet it's hard to play if your heart isn't in it and you feel discouraged by critics.
As someone who has traveled a lot as well, I understand that at some point, one can arrive somewhere and feel, "Hey, I get this place. Things make sense here, I can relate to the people here - this is where I belong." Perhaps Neven feels that way about Germany and he wants to repay that feeling with his service as a player.
People are allowed to have preferences. Honestly, the U.S. is a hard country to play for in some ways - players don't get the recognition or adoration that they would in other places for being part of the national team. A lot of die-hard American soccer fans are also relentless critics of the top U.S. players. Neven's experiences with the U17 U.S. team already taught him the squad is often booed (yes, even what is essentially a boys team) for political reasons wherever it travels to play. It really might not be the best place for anyone thin-skinned.