Why Kobe, LeBron and other US stars have been drawn to the World Cup


In the summer of 2018, Kobe Bryant got up early every day, because he was Kobe Bryant, and that’s what he did, even a couple of years after retirement.

If there was one thing Bryant could do as well as he played basketball, it was time management, and he was adamant that the secret to productivity was getting it done in the dark hours, when everyone else was still asleep.

He told me he would do all kinds of things before dawn, 17 months before his tragic death in a helicopter crash. Business affairs, ideation for your growing media start-up, physical exercise; things that could be completed in solitude and later free up time to spend with his wife and daughters.

And, for a solid month four years ago, his morning routine allowed for the slightest tweak for a new element, one he was dedicated to.

The World Cup.

Bryant spent part of his childhood in soccer-crazy Italy, where his father Joe played professional basketball and where soccer became his first sports love. He never stopped following soccer, met David Beckham when the England star moved to Los Angeles Galaxy in 2007, traveled to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa days after winning the NBA Finals and found the first part of the World Cup 2018. it matched his schedule very well.

By 5 a.m. Pacific time, when the first games of the World Cup began in Russia, the “retired” Bryant had already fully woken up and refused some daily tasks. As the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar, Luis Suarez and Harry Kane prepared for action, the Lakers icon was on the treadmill at his Newport Coast, California home, eyes glued to the television screen he was above, watching the matches broadcast from Moscow, Nizhny Novgorod, Samara and Saransk.

The 15-minute half of football allowed for a shower after the run, meaning you could change and be ready to enjoy the second half while eating breakfast or stretching.

“It was perfect for me,” he told me in an interview in September 2018, less than two months after the World Cup ended. “There was nothing else going on when I was on the treadmill in the morning. No (distractions). I loved it.”

While Bryant’s appreciation of soccer might be one of the most extreme examples of how many American stars in other sports have a deep-rooted passion for the World Cup, he’s far from the only one.

“Whenever I’ve met incredible athletes from other sports, they often wanted to talk about football and knew a lot about it,” former Manchester United, Real Madrid and England midfielder Beckham told me in an interview towards the end of the his MLS career. “A lot of them are big fans of our football. They respect it, just like I have a lot of respect for what they do.”

In 2014, when LeBron James wanted to escape the spotlight for a few days after completing his second hotly followed “Decision” by choosing to return to the Cleveland Cavaliers, he headed to the World Cup in Brazil and stay in the final with the Cavs’ new teammate, Brazilian Anderson Varejao.

“This is the highest you can get,” James, still an investor in the English Premier League team Liverpool, told the AP. “This is bigger than the NBA Finals in the sense that it’s the world and there are so many countries here. I’ve been watching it from home in the States and it’s been an amazing tournament.”

I have personally spoken to many elite practitioners of traditional American sports about soccer over the years. Sometimes it’s a good icebreaker for an interview, an innocuous topic to get things going. Athletes are often excited about the truly global nature of the beautiful game. Or how there are so many competitive international teams. Or the level of fanaticism it generates in the countries that worship it the most.

Gregg Berhalter and Alexi Lalas compared NFL players to World Cup stars with the ‘FOX NFL Sunday’ crew

Gregg Berhalter and Alexi Lalas compared NFL players to World Cup stars "FOX NFL Sunday" crew

Gregg Berhalter and Alexi Lalas join the “Fox NFL Sunday” crew to preview the USMNT’s World Cup hopes and compare NFL stars and teams like Tom Brady and the Dallas Cowboys to the players of the World Cup

Former Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Roddy White once told me he thought Ivory Coast football forward Didier Drogba was “cooler than any NFL player who ever lived.” White became such a fan of Drogba that he wondered how good he would have become if he had focused on football instead of soccer at a young age.

Odell Beckham Jr. he might still wonder the same thing. As a youngster, OBJ was such a talented soccer player that his former youth coach in Louisiana, Colin Rocke, told me over the phone this week that if American Beckham had stayed with him, he might have become, well, in the american one.

“That kid Odell was special,” Rocke said. “He was one of the most technical players I’d ever seen even though I wasn’t taught that. His speed was incredible and his first instinct was to beat people. He could have gone into the national team. I told his mother, but in high school they guided him to football.”

Countless athletes have gained a greater knowledge of soccer through the popular EA Sports FIFA video game franchise. When the World Cup starts on November 20, fandom will reach a whole new level.

With this year’s event set to be held in Qatar and many games scheduled for mid- or late-morning in the United States, it’s fair to assume that World Cup contests will frequently be on the screens at various facilities across the NFL. NBA players who travel a lot may also find that the schedule accommodates their downtime, though some games will run into their morning shootarounds.

These restrictions of professional athletes were no longer relevant to Bryant in 2018, who by then had fallen into his own schedule. He found the principles of business relatively easy, he told me, because so much of it was about organizing time with high efficiency, and then just putting maximum effort into each compartmentalized task.

Naturally, it was the early morning World Cup games in the quiet American pre-dawn hours that could command their undivided attention, others would have to accommodate family time and business calls and the like.

But given that Bryant never did anything half-heartedly, it only seemed natural to ask him, how far did his obsession with the World Cup go? Of the 64 games in the tournament, how many did Bryant watch at least a portion of?

“All of them,” he replied, questioningly, as if any other answer would have been absurd. – All of them, of course.

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Martin Rogers is a columnist for FOX Sports and author of the FOX Sports Insider newsletter. Follow him on Twitter @MRogersFOX i subscribe to the daily newsletterr.


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