Skip to content

Landon Donovan and a recent history of transitioning icons

Jun 16, 2013, 4:35 PM EDT

2012 MLS Cup - Team Press Conference Getty Images

Raúl Gonzalez played his last international match in 2006, something more people would talk about if Spain didn’t immediately ascend to their current international preeminence. With 102 caps and 44 goals, the Real Madrid icon remains one of the most decorated players in Spain’s history, but on the wrong side of history, the iconic attacker missed out on a world championship, two European titles, and his country’s discarding of a reputation as one of world soccer’s persistent underachievers.

“I didn’t call Raul to let him know he wasn’t selected,” head coach Luis Aragones, four-time coach of Real rival Atlético, told an undoubtedly incredulous media upon dropping the icon. “He is not an exceptional case.”

source: ReutersPerhaps that statement served Aragones’s purposes, but it’s not true. Players like Raúl are exceptional cases, and rightfully so. Few players have the talent to make their country’s national team, let alone make over 100 appearances, let alone prove so inspirational that even after their former team wins three major titles, people debate whether his exclusion was justified. Capable of creating and scoring, as a focal point on and off the field, Raúl’s significance was difficult to understate, even if a dip in form meant his production wasn’t matching his reputation. Still, there will always be loyalists who feel Raúl deserved to share in Spain’s glories.

Raúl’s story, however, is not singular. It’s a logical one. Soccer players have professional lifespans. For the truly special ones, those lifespans coincide with teams and microcultures being built around them. For Raúl, talent plus iconography plus circumstance derived from his place of birth and club team’s prestige coalesced to create a type of world a player can define, both by his presence and his absence. For all their successes, Spain’s modern story begins where one of Raúl’s ends.

Other instances are less dramatic, but in the United States, we’re going through one of our own icon’s transitions – that of Landon Donovan, a type of American Raúl in significance if not style. But whereas Spain’s depth of talent partially justified Aragones’s decision, Donovan’s quality is viewed as singular. How, many U.S. soccer fans would ask, can Jurgen Klinsmann justify excluding a Landon Donovan?


It isn’t always about talent. Argentina’s discovered that many times with Juan Román Riquelme, whose unparalleled combination of clairvoyant’s vision and magician’s skill came with a sensitive nature that collapsed many relationships between star and manager. So it was no true surprise when, in March 2009, Riquelme abruptly announced his retirement from international soccer, unable to meet his new coach eye-to-eye.

“We don’t think the same way,” Riquelme said of Diego Maradona, the Argentine playing legend who replaced the resigned Alfio Basile. “We don’t share the same codes of ethics. While he is the coach of the national team, we can’t work together.”

source: APMaradona took over an Argentina team that was struggling to qualify for World Cup 2010 and, after incredible inconsistency over his first qualifiers, stabilized the team. The Albiceleste secured a place in South Africa and, despite numerous criticisms, made the tournament’s quarterfinals. It wasn’t classic Argentina, with the team eventually playing with four central defenders across the back, but given what he’d inherited, Maradona’s results vindicated his experiments.

He wanted Riquelme, though. Like most Argentines, Maradona revered Román’s skill, and as a icon for Diego’s beloved Boca Juniors, Riquelme was unlikely to be shown the door.

But for a man that, for all his faults, has inspired such loyalty from the generation that’s followed, Maradona saw none from Riquelme. When he insisted his trequarista adapt his game amid the country’s faltering results, Riquelme walked.

“All I said was that I wanted him to play 15 meters further up the pitch,” Maradona said, when asked about Riquelme’s decision. “What have I done for him to be scared of me? If I can’t say how I want my players to play, then I’m in the oven.”

With “only” 51 international caps, Riquelme is no Raúl or Donovan. His erratic temperament also mitigated his preternatural ability, making him more an object of impassioned debate than blind loyalty. At least, when juxtaposed against potential qualifying disappointment and the legend that is Diego Maradona, Riquelme’s stance was never going to move the masses.

So it was that an iconic player’s career ended amid a personality conflict. Lionel Messi was moved into the middle and, despite fan expectations that he’d score more goals, had an effective World Cup. Though they did not having a clear replacement, Argentina moved on without Riquelme. even if it was unclear how they’d replace him. Ultimately, Argentina was fine without Riquelme.

Out of the team for much of the Klinsmann era, Donovan’s absence no longer carries the uncertainties of Riquelme’s departure. Without the man they saw as their best player, United States fans have seen a capable if more limited U.S. squad navigate its obstacles. If there was a time when the exclusion of a Donovan-like talent would inspire questions and doubts, questions are all the remain.


“I beg the Brazilian fans that they support us,” were Dunga’s words, an incredible plea considering the man’s own playing résumé. A World Cup-winner with 91 caps, the midfield stalwart would garner the benefit of the doubt under most circumstances, but after omitting Ronaldinho from his 2010 World Cup squad, the Brazil boss was forced into a more emotional appeal.

“If they don’t like me or any other thing, that’s fine, but I want [the Brazilian fan] to support us, to be a patriot.”

source: APEven at that point, in May 2010, Ronaldinho’s fading skill was obvious. And given the focal point he’d been in previous squads, it wasn’t surprising Dunga wished to move on from Gaucho’s era. Having built a team that would rely on robust defending and counterattacking prowess, the world’s number one team was no place for a floating icon who, while still being one of the world’s most skilled players, didn’t fit the scheme.

Tell that to a Brazilian public who’d created the icon. Pele may have been the country’s best overall player, and by 2010 Messi had ascended to his global pedestal, but to those loyal to the style Ronaldinho brought, Gaucho was the counterpoint to each. Numbers are nice, and everybody loves goals, but who nobody could match Ronaldinho’s skill on the ball? Chasing a goal late, needing something that transcends tactics, that had to be worth something. Right?

It’s the type of appeal you’ll hear about the Algeria game – Donovan’s transcendant moment. Beyond explanation, beyond anything you can draw up on a white board, when you need a goal late, who would you rather have on the field? Most U.S. fans would rather have Donovan.

Brazil’s quarterfinal exit in South Africa left Ronaldinho’s supporters with a level of vindication, as did his recall under Dunga’s successor, Mano Menezes. But Dunga had long thrived without the former Ballon d’Or winner. The Seleçao were the reigning South American champions and had won the Confederations Cup the year before. They went into South Africa as the world’s number one team. While Brazil’s fans missed their idol, it’s unclear their team actually did.


It would be a mistake to draw direct parallels. Raúl is distinct, as is Riquelme, Ronaldinho and Donovan. It’s what makes their exclusions noteworthy. If we were talking about players easily compared to others, we wouldn’t be talking at all.

But there is something in each scenario that can be drawn on when thinking of Landon Donovan. Raúl’s iconography and importance within the Spanish team made his exclusion seem impossible, form be damned. Riquelme’s unlikely retirement came as expectations of his role changed – amid his inability (or, unwillingness) to accept his new world. And with Ronaldinho, fans passionate about a singular player were unable to see the bigger picture.

With all these players there was a bigger picture. Spain went on to unparalleled success. Argentina salvaged their qualifying campaign. Brazil stayed the top-ranked team in the world. Each team had a future after their icons.

The United States may be a ways away from embracing that future, and with Donovan set to take part in this summer’s Gold Cup, he’s got an obvious route back into the full national team. But if that route ends up being blocked, U.S. fans need only look to recent history and see a series of iconic players for more successful teams whose indispensability was dispelled.

Latest Posts
  1. Injury update: England likely facing Italy without Welbeck, Sterling

    Mar 27, 2015, 10:00 PM EDT

    England v Slovenia - EURO 2016 Qualifier Getty Images

    Both Danny Welbeck and Raheem Sterling will most likely be out of England’s friendly vs. Italy on Tuesday.

  2. Wayne Rooney after Euro qualifying win over Lithuania: Other nations ‘frightened’ of England

    Mar 27, 2015, 8:20 PM EDT

    Scotland v England - International Friendly Getty Images

    England trounced Lithuania 4-0 in a Euro qualifier for their seventh-straight win since the World Cup, and captain Wayne Rooney likes what future lies ahead for his country.

  3. Young Mexican-American Ventura Alvarado picks USMNT over El Tri

    Mar 27, 2015, 6:42 PM EDT

    Pumas UNAM v America - Clausura 2015 Liga MX Getty Images

    22-year-old Ventura Alvarado asserts that he would like to play for USMNT in the long term.

  4. Wales manager Chris Coleman defends Gareth Bale after criticism from Real fans

    Mar 27, 2015, 6:00 PM EDT

    Wales v Cyprus - EURO 2016 Qualifier Getty Images

    Manager Chris Coleman say Gareth Bale is only focused on the Wales’ “job in hand.”

  5. Luis Suarez believes FIFA treated him like a ‘hooligan’ following bite incident

    Mar 27, 2015, 4:50 PM EDT

    FC Barcelona v Rayo Vallecano de Madrid - La Liga Getty Images

    Suarez doesn’t think he could be classified as hooligan after his biting incidents.

  6. New England Revolution’s early season struggles not hugely concerning

    Mar 27, 2015, 3:45 PM EDT

    New York Red Bulls v New England Revolution - Eastern Conference Final - Leg 2 Getty Images

    The New England Revolution have been on the losing end early in the season before.

  7. England lineup: Danny Welbeck starts; Harry Kane awaits first cap from the bench

    Mar 27, 2015, 3:00 PM EDT

    Harry Kane, England Harry Kane, England

    No first cap just yet for Kane, though he’s expected to come off the bench in the second half.

  8. U.S. U-23 MNT hammers Bosnia-Herzegovina U-23s, 5-2, in tune-up for Olympic qualifying team

    Mar 27, 2015, 1:27 PM EDT

    Jordan Morris, USMNT Getty Images

    A resounding result for the 2016 Olympics hopefuls, away from home.

  9. Mark Hughes signs contract extension with Stoke City through 2019

    Mar 27, 2015, 12:18 PM EDT

    Mark Hughes, Stoke City FC Getty Images

    Stoke City are on the verge of their first-ever top-10 finish in the Premier League, and Mark Hughes has been rewarded for his success.

  10. Juventus MF Claudio Marchisio tears ACL, will miss Champions League QF, 6-8 months

    Mar 27, 2015, 11:04 AM EDT

    Claudio Marchisio, Juventus FC Claudio Marchisio, Juventus FC

    Another bitter injury blow for Juventus, who now have just one fit, first-team central midfielder.

  11. Frank Lampard is in New York City to watch NYCFC play this weekend

    Mar 27, 2015, 10:11 AM EDT

    Frank Lampard, Manchester City FC Getty Images

    Lampard is in the Big Apple, where he’ll spend time with his future teammates and watch them play Sporting KC.

  12. Eden Hazard says Chelsea’s Champions League exit was a “blessing in disguise”

    Mar 27, 2015, 8:25 AM EDT

    Eden Hazard, Chelsea FC Getty Images

    With a six-point lead in the league (and a game in hand), do Chelsea really need a “blessing in disguise” to win this year’s Premier League title?

  13. MLS preview: FC Dallas vs. Sounders, Whitecaps vs. Timbers headline Week 4

    Mar 27, 2015, 8:03 AM EDT

    Obafemi Martins, Seattle Sounders FC Getty Images

    A star-depleted (international duty) Week 4 of MLS should still provide lots of entertainment and quality.

  14. Scholes: Gareth Bale is a “perfect fit,” could lead Manchester United back to titles

    Mar 26, 2015, 11:30 PM EDT

    Gareth Bale, Tottenham Hotspur FC Getty Images

    If punditry doesn’t work for Scholes, sign him up as Man United’s top player recruiter. At least he aims high.

  15. WATCH: Time-lapse video of San Jose Earthquakes’ Avaya Stadium construction

    Mar 26, 2015, 10:00 PM EDT

    Chicago Fire v San Jose Earthquakes Getty Images

    Watch in 90 seconds the construction of Avaya Stadium, from Day 1 to Game 1.

  16. International roundup: Neymar, Willian star as Brazil thump France, 3-1, in Paris

    Mar 26, 2015, 8:59 PM EDT

    Neymar, Brazil Neymar, Brazil

    Neymar is 23 years old, and he’s already scored 43 goals for Brazil. If that seems like a lot, it’s because it is.

  17. Report: Liverpool’s Daniel Sturridge to miss a month with hip injury

    Mar 26, 2015, 7:17 PM EDT

    Daniel Sturridge, Liverpool FC Getty Images

    Another month out for Sturridge, just when Liverpool’s top-four dreams rest on his shoulders the most.

  18. UEFA fines Malmo $110,000 for “poor pitch” in Champions League, but racism still only worth $11,000

    Mar 26, 2015, 6:54 PM EDT

    Swedbank Stadium, Malmo FF Swedbank Stadium, Malmo FF

    You couldn’t get this one anymore wrong, UEFA. 10-times worse than racism? Not OK.

Featured video

Week 30: Headline PL moment