On the Road With Landon Donovan, U.S. Soccer's Ultimate Road Warrior

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Donovan as an 18-year-old with Bayer Leverkusen.

Sandra Behne/Getty Images

Frosted Flakes, was that because they were something you could find in Germany that was American and familiar?

Yeah, exactly. They were called Frosties. I would go to the store, and most of the stuff, you can’t read anything. You don’t know what it is. You don’t know what you’re getting. But you see Frosties and you’d see Tony the Tiger on the blue box. You’re like, “I know that!”

Then in 2002, you went to the World Cup in Korea, and you’re still super-duper young. I imagine that felt like even more of a different world than Germany did. Is that accurate?

Oh, Korea was crazy. I learned a lot about cultural differences in Germany, for sure, but Korea is almost a shock to the system if you don’t know what to expect. We were in Seoul. There’s so many people. In their daily life, people are very—the way their culture works is they are very pushy. They’re just kind of like, Okay, get out of my way. I’m next. I’m next. They just kind of go, go, go.

You start to realize that’s just the way the culture is. It’s not good or bad, it just is. It’s why I tell people that the best thing you can do in your life is travel, because you would have no idea unless you get out and travel. It was such a great experience. The food was so unique and interesting—some good, some bad—but it was a great experience.

In that World Cup, after the Portugal game [Note: the U.S. pulled off a huge upset, beating Portugal 3-2 in the group stage], was it kind of hard for you as a 20-year-old to keep the ego in check? I have to imagine you were probably feeling like the man after that.

I’m trying to think back. I would say, not until after the whole tournament. Because during the tournament, you’re just so focused on the next day, the next day, the next day. What you’re doing, next training, go to the gym. I was just reveling in it, to be honest. Certainly after I got home is when the ego needed some checking.

Did you come back to a sort of hero’s welcome?

Well, first of all, soccer wasn’t quite as big then. Second of all, there was no social media, so it wasn’t crazy. But when I would go to soccer stadiums after that, when we would travel to play the [LA] Galaxy or Columbus [Crew], then I would see how people cared. I do remember being in an airport after that—not when I first flew back, but during the season by myself doing something—and some random person noticed me and said hi. That was the first time I’d ever been recognized in my life. “Huge fan. I really loved watching you in the World Cup.” I was like, Oh, wow. People are actually watching soccer here!

Extremely. When I’m around people I know, care about, trust, I’m actually quite the opposite. I’m quite extroverted. My therapist always used to call me the reluctant superstar, because I didn’t want any of it, but it was just there and I had to find a way to manage it appropriately. It was never something—and to this day—it’s not something I enjoy. I’m just playing because I love to play and I get to make a living at it. But all the other stuff? I could have done without.

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