Anticipation, anxiety and nerves will be some of the emotions common to teenagers who will feature at the Fifa Under-17 World Cup, starting in Delhi in October, given that it will be the first major tournament for most.
It was no different for Landon Donovan of the US in 1999, when he geared up for a shot at glory. Luckily for him, by his side was a trusted lieutenant—a teddy bear—whose sole purpose was to comfort him during the long tour of New Zealand. At that age, it’s never easy to be away from home.
“I had a special teddy bear that someone gave me and I used it as a good luck charm during the tournament. It wasn’t the most masculine thing to carry around, but it seemed to help us," Donovan says on email.
One of the most successful teams at the U-17 World Cup (in terms of qualification), the US had never missed the tournament since the biennial event started in 1985. Their best finish until then was two quarter-final appearances (in 1991 and 1993), and a lot was expected from Donovan & Co., given that they had been handpicked and trained as part of an ambitious project by US Soccer.
Today, Donovan believes India are where the US was a few years ago.
As he looks back, he recalls that it was in January 1999 that the US Soccer Residency Program was launched to pick the top 20 youth players from around the country and house them at the IMG academy in Bradenton, Florida. The idea was to help the sport grow as part of “Project 2010", which hoped to develop a World Cup-winning squad by 2010. It’s somewhat similar to what India had in mind when it set up the AIFF Elite Academy, based in Goa, in 2013.
“The programme came about as a way to develop the best 15- to 16-year-olds in our country. We didn’t have Major League Soccer (MLS) academies at that time, so we needed our best players to be in a pro environment on a daily basis, and that’s what the IMG academy provided for us," Donovan, now 35, says.
He made it to the under-17 team through the Olympic Development Program.
One of the brightest talents from the US, Donovan had already been signed by German club Bayer Leverkusen the previous year after he impressed them at a tournament in Europe. At Bradenton, he joined DaMarcus Beasley, Kyle Beckerman, Bobby Convey and Oguchi Onyewu, who would form the core of the American team for the next few years.
Back then though, they were just a bunch of dreamy youngsters who wanted to give their best at the tournament. Drawn in Group A, which also featured Uruguay and Poland, the Americans started their campaign against hosts New Zealand.
“We certainly didn’t feel any pressure. We believed we were the better team and we were excited to play against the host nation," Donovan remembers.
Trailing after a 16th-minute goal from Dave Mulligan, it wasn’t until the 69th minute that the Americans drew level through Abe Thompson. Five minutes later, Donovan struck the winner to give his side the opening win.
In the second tie against Poland, it took an 89th-minute penalty from Donovan to snatch a point in a 1-1 draw. In the final group game against Uruguay, Onyewu’s 90th-minute strike got them all three points. The US topped Group A to set up a quarter-final against Mexico.
It was a stage they had failed to surpass twice before and there would be nothing sweeter than breaking the jinx with a win over their arch rivals.
“Our coach, John Ellinger, instilled supreme confidence in us. That group of guys was as close as any team I’ve ever been a part of and we were like a family out there," Donovan says.
Mexico took an early lead. But after goalkeeper D.J. Countess stopped a penalty, it was the perfect fillip for this bunch, which turned it around in a 10-minute period straddled across the half to take command of the game.
Goals from Beasley, Jordan Cila and Beckerman put the Americans in control. Though Mexico scored their second in the 70th-minute, Donovan’s side held on to the 3-2 lead to make their first semi-final appearance at the tournament.
However, heartbreak was to follow against Australia in a penalty shoot-out (after a full-time score of 2-2), where the Americans went down fighting 7-6. Their spirits deflated after an incredible effort right through the campaign, the US lost the third-place tie to Ghana 2-0.
“We were devastated to lose that match (versus Australia). We felt we were a better team than we showed that day and it was heart-breaking. The Ghana match was an afterthought because of what had happened in the semi-finals," Donovan says.
Donovan got the Golden Ball award at the end of the tournament. However, there was more to come for this American dream team, as a number of its members were a part of the squad that reached the quarter-finals of the 2002 World Cup.
Donovan was the all-time top-scorer for the US until Clint Dempsey matched his record, while also registering the most assists (58). In addition, he has the most goals (145) and assists (136) in MLS as well.
“We felt that if we were some of the best 17-year-olds in the world, why couldn’t we develop into some of the best adult players in the world..." Donovan adds.
The academy at Bradenton continued churning out footballers who plied their trade in leagues around the world. Earlier this year, the programme was shut down after 18 years, with American clubs taking up the onus of player development.
“At that time, keeping a group together was the only way to maintain development and success. Now, I believe the best choice for a young player is to be with the youth MLS academies and develop there," Donovan says.
“The academies are getting better all the time and will continue to do so. While I’m sad to see the residency programme go away, I believe it is the right thing to do and that money can be better invested elsewhere," he adds.
In October, hosts India will take on the US in the U-17 World Cup opener. Donovan knows a thing or two about India and its football. “I actually considered playing in India at the end of my career. My wife and I travelled there a few years ago and loved it," he says.
“The (US) players now are much more talented than we were at that age. The coaches, infrastructure and facilities have all led to us developing better players and that will continue to be the case. In many ways, Indian football is similar to where US football was a few years back. I’m curious to see how it continues to grow. At the same time, I’m excited to see how India does in the tournament," he says.