Hard to be humble
Adu raising U.S. hopes ahead of U-17 World CupPosted: Tuesday August 05, 2003 10:17 AM
Updated: Tuesday August 05, 2003 11:20 AM
By Terry Baddoo, SI.com
At 14 years old, most wannabe footballers are just dreaming of life in the big time. For a handful of exceptional teens, however, that dream is near enough certain to be realized. ( Video Box)
Gifted players of the past like Pele, Maradona, Cruyff and Ronaldo were earmarked for greatness while still in short trousers. And now comes the name Freddy Adu, a player some Americans believe could be the next big thing.
Young, gifted and black -- if ever a sportsman were tailor-made to embody that slogan, then that young man is Adu, who was named recently to the United States’ roster for the Under-17 World Championship to be played in Finland from Aug. 13-30.
Adu is the youngest player on the U.S. roster by more than 23 months.
Gone from Ghana
Born in the West African nation of Ghana and whisked away to the United States at the age of 8 when his mother won an immigration lottery, Adu is now an American citizen. And he is already being talked about in the same tones as Pele and Maradona, when they were a similar age.
In short, some in American soccer think they have found their soccer messiah.
"Freddy’s a unique individual, to be so talented technically and tactically at a young age,” said U.S. under-17 national team coach John Ellinger. “I kind of feel he is an instinctive player, where I don't think he knows how he is going to pull it out or resolve a problem.
“Put him under pressure and he always seems to come up with a solution that works out for us,” said Ellinger. “[He is] very gifted, obviously, on the ball, a pretty good finisher; physically his pace has a pretty good change of gear. He definitely plays like a much older player than a 14 year old."
Mother knows best
And Freddy's maturity is not a new phenomenon. At age 11, his play even attracted the attention of the mighty Inter Milan, which reportedly offered him $750,000 to relocate to Italy -- an offer his mother declined on his behalf.
"She's extremely important,” Adu said. “She's my only parent, basically, right now. She's done everything a parent could possibly do for her kids.
“At one point she had to work two jobs,” he said. “We barely got to see her. I was about 8 or 9 years old, my younger brother was 6 or 7; you could basically imagine how hard it would be for a parent to be away from her kids that young.
“She has been very important. Everything she says, there is so much respect that my brother and I have for her -- everything she says goes."
There could be another Adu in the U.S. program before long.
“He had to convince mom to let him go,” said Ellinger. “He's got a brother, Fro, whose a pretty good player, too, and could be in our next pool, but we are going to take it a little slow. We can't have both brothers here at the same time. Mom needs someone at home.”
So, mother knows best. And the Americans wasted no time trying to ensure that Freddy Adu remained a U.S. prospect by making him the youngest-ever player to be selected for the U.S. under-17 team when he was just 13 -- eclipsing the likes of World Cup stars Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley.
‘The best ever’
“At such a young age I have not seen anyone who is as far along as he is,” said Ellinger. "Thinking back to DaMarcus and Landon when they were the same age, they possessed different traits. Landon was a little bit smarter tactically on the ball -- when to pass, when to dribble.
“DaMarcus at the time was sort of like Freddy, an instinctual player and just gifted with pace, getting behind people and running at players.
“Freddy, there is no question he has all the tools. [He] needs to be a little more mature as a soccer player in the middle of the field. He's going to be the best player we have produced I think."
Such high praise could, of course, inflate the ego of a youngster just finding his feet as a teenager. But, fortunately for all concerned, it appears Adu's physical and mental maturity are perfectly in synch.
"He's pretty unique in that sense that it hasn't gotten to his head; he just wants to play,” said Ellinger. “He wants to become better himself as a player and make the team better. He loves the team, he'll tell you that, just loves everything about [U.S. soccer’s youth residency program in Bradenton, Fla.] and that he can play every day at a pretty good level. He just thrives in that environment.
“He knows being at his age and how talented he is that there is some hype that goes with it, and he is handling it pretty well -- very maturely I think."
Said Adu: "Every single day I’ve got someone reminding me to just go out there and have fun and don't get too big-headed.”
“I talk to my mom often when I'm away from home and she always tells me, every time we end the conversation, ‘Be humble.’"
Adu says he is no longer bothered when skeptics question the authenticity of his birth certificate.
“When I was 9 or 10 years old, it used to bother me a lot, but now it's just like I don't care about that stuff anymore,” he said. “I take it as a compliment. I go out there and play; if people are saying that you are older than what you are, that means you are doing something good.”
While Freddy refuses to believe his own glowing press, his teammates on the U.S. squad and at the youth soccer academy are in no doubt that they are in the presence of greatness.
"When he is on your team, its just like a bonus because he has great vision with the ball; he'll find you if you are open,” said Steven Curfman, a midfielder on the U.S. U-17 side. “If you give him the ball, he'll run the play. Everything runs a little bit smoother when Freddy’s on the team and out there.”
“He is by far, with our age, the best player I have ever played with -- even when I have played with older people,” said Curfman. “He sees the game steps before anyone else does. It’s amazing how he does it.”
Corey Ashe, a U.S. midfielder/forward, agreed.
"You don't see kids his age -- or our age -- doing moves or hitting the balls he is hitting,” Ashe said. “His vision is just great, his touches are great, his striking ability is great -- which makes him a great player.
“I have actually been playing with him since I was 12, so I've known him for a while” Ashe said. “He is a great teammate. Whenever you are down, he'll find a way to get you up, find a way to get you the ball. He's just the answer to a lot of problems.
“He is constantly joking, constantly laughing.”
World Cup dreams
Adu's greatness, or potential to become one of the greats, has already prompted speculation that he'll be in Coach Bruce Arena's plans come time for the next World Cup, when the Americans hope to enhance their reputation as a world football power following their run to the quarterfinals in 2002.
Will Adu be their not-so-secret weapon? Well, like a true pro, he is taking one match at a time.
"I have thought about it,” Adu said. “I have people asking me if [I] think [I am] going to be on that team or not. All I say is that it is a goal, but right now the Under-17 World Championship is my first goal.
“After that I can set my mind to the under-20s, the Olympics and then the full national team. It is certainly a goal for me. Hopefully, I am there in 2006."
The longtime U.S. U-17 coach believes Adu will be.
“I think that's a real possibility,” he said. “I think Bruce [Arena] will bring him along slow, give him a taste in the next couple of years, may even get in for a qualifier or two. I don't think he is ready to start for that national team right now.
“I think once he starts playing on a regular basis -- it looks like he will probably go to MLS because of having to be 18 to play overseas –- and get some experience there. I think  is a reality. I think he'll be good enough to get a roster spot, so I'm saying, ‘Yeah he'll be there.’”
Eyes on Europe
Adu says he would one day like to play in England.
“I've talked to my mom and we have discussed where I want to play in the future,” he said. “I always tell her that I would love to play in England one day, but right now I don't want to get my hopes up, I just want to keep playing. If I do get offers from teams from England, I’ll look into it.
“Europe is where I'm sure everyone wants to play,” he said. “I certainly want to play in Europe. If I have to play in MLS in order to develop as a soccer player, I'll do it.”
As a measure of belief in Adu's potential, sporting goods manufacturer Nike has already signed him up for a multi-year endorsement deal that could reportedly be worth up to $1 million, and he also has an agent. All that before he even has a driver’s license.
Adu said he sometimes considers how his life would be different if he had never left Ghana.
“I would probably just be playing soccer for fun, seeing that the management in soccer [there] is not very good,” he said. “When I got the news that we were coming to America, I was basically in shock.
“Everybody wants to come to America. I have thought about it, but you know what? I'm glad we came to America. I'm glad we made basically all the decisions we made about coming to this country.
Soccer is at the heart of his memories of Ghana.
“Basically the routine there is, you wake up in the morning, go to school, come back and just play soccer for the rest of the day until dark or until actually your mom comes and gets you away from the soccer field. So basically that's all we did -- just nonstop soccer.
Ghana's loss is America's gain, then, as the U.S. awaits the coronation of its first bona fide soccer superstar. Will it be much Adu about nothing? The signs are good that will not be the case.
Terry Baddoo is an anchor for CNN International's World Sport.