Balboa, left MARCELO BALBOA … SOCCER ANNOUNCER, ESPN, ABC … U.S. SOCCER HALL OF FAME, 2005 … FORMER NATIONAL SOCCER TEAM CAPTAIN; APPEARED IN WORLD CUP TOURNAMENTS, 1990, 1994, 1998 … 2-TIME U.S. SOCCER ATHLETE OF THE YEAR, 1992, 1994 If they can’t put up with my pressure, how are they ever going to stand the pressure from 60,000 people? VINCE L OMBARDI, legendary Green Bay Packers coach 120 IT’S HOW YOU PLAY THE GAME Iwas a reckless, collision-oriented player as a kid. My brother played very skillfully, like my father, but I loved contact. My dad was a pro player and didn’t try to change my style, but he did make me work harder to add more dimensions to my game. He would come home from working nights and go in the backyard and train the both of us. He knew I was a natural defender but always said, You can’t just be a defender, you have to be dangerous and move forward so that you’re able to score when the opportunity presents itself. DECISION TIME As a kid, I played every sport, but when I reached fourteen, my dad made me make a choice: baseball, football or soccer? I chose soccer, but he wasn’t done. He handed me and my brother paper and pen and said, Write down your goals in the sport. I wrote that I wanted to make the Olympic team and the national team. From that point on, he’d use my goal sheet to reinforce for me what I said I wanted. It gave me focus and helped light a fire under me to succeed.
DAD My whole life my dad was always critiquing my game. He said good things, but he also let me know what I needed to work on. Up to the last game I played as a pro he was studying my game and letting me know how I could play better. As kids, my brother and I were able to recognize three speech patterns in my dad. We knew what was coming after every game. Number one was a good one You did okay. Number two was, Your effort was barely passable. Number three was, You suck! Something must have worked, because when he coached me and my brother, we won most of our games as well as an under-19 (U19) National Club championship. THE MOMENT At fifteen, my dad and I had some problems. He thought I wasn’t playing hard enough and I thought he was being unreasonable. After all, I was MARCELO BALBOA 121 already one of the best players on the team with or without a monster effort, so why break a sweat? One day, after repeatedly threatening me, my dad kicked me off the team. I was his best player and I thought I’d get special treatment, but that wasn’t the case. The team had traveled a lot, and we were just coming off a trip to Germany, where a club team watched me play and offered me a contract to stay there and go pro.
Not many kids could handle this type of acclaim, and you can count me among them. So what did my dad do with me and my new attitude? He kicked me off the team and said, Go play for someone else. At first I thought it might be a good move, but then I realized I didn’t have a ride to games and I couldn’t even get a tryout without my dad, so I asked him to take me back. He offered me a tryout to get back on his team. I passed and, at fifteen years old, I learned a great lesson that helped me spend years in the starting lineup on the national team: the easy part is getting there; the hard part is staying there. If you’re good, you’ll get a tryout and maybe play well enough to make the team. But will you outwork all comers to stay there? That’s the bigger question. After getting cut, I pledged never to be outworked again, and I don’t think I was throughout the rest of my career. CONSISTENCY IS THE KEY My dad was not about having a great game followed by a bad game. He wanted consistency in his players and their game. Why play a great eighty-nine minutes and then have a mental breakdown, let your man break free, and watch him get the game-winner in the ninetieth minute? I needed to be consistent, to sometimes sacrifice being great so that I would never be bad. It was consistency that got me on the national team, but I didn’t get a lot of headlines or marketing opportunities, as did Alexi Lalas and Tony Meola.
I just had the game and the pride that came from playing it as well and consistently as I could. CONFIDENCE LOST It had never happened before, but thanks to one man’s word processor I began to doubt myself. The first year I made the national team, I was the subject of a Paul Gardner column headlined rambo. He wrote that it 122 IT’S HOW YOU PLAY THE GAME looked like I was only out to hurt people, that I was devoid of skill, and that I would soon self-destruct. I was new to the national team, and I was crushed. It rattled me so much that I started to think that I really had no skill, so the next game I played I overcompensated and tried to play a finesse game instead of the way I normally played. It was a disaster. Thankfully, my dad straightened me out. He let me know I could play and that there was nothing wrong with my style. Looking back, I realize how fragile my confidence and my teammates’ confidence really were. The press didn’t know me, but they had the power to destroy me as a player.
From then on, I played angry, always in control, but always playing hard from whistle to whistle. FINAL THOUGHTS I just wanted to play well enough to leave a legacy so that one day my kids could look at my career and say, My dad was really good. And that would be fine with me. MY WRAP You know the bigger names in world soccerBeckham, Ronaldo, Landon Donovanbut only the true soccer fan knows how special this U.S. Soccer Hall of Famer was as a player and as a leader. I’m talking about his work ethic, his drive, and his fearlessness. As much as you’d be tempted to focus on the national team coaches who brought him along as a pro, I think those days working alone with his dad are what laid the groundwork for his success. MARCELO BALBOA
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