Adu's mission is far more than to just rake in the cash

PUBLISHED : Monday, 19 April, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 19 April, 2004, 12:00am

There is so much ado about Freddy Adu. Just like Pele 30 years ago, he has been entrusted with making soccer matter in the United States.

But there is one big difference between the two: Pele was 35 years old, Freddy is 14. Seems like quite a burden for one so young.

History has shown that gifted prodigies more often flame out than burn bright. And few prodigies have ever had to endure the tonnage of hype and scrutiny spewed out by our current mega-media society like Freddy has.

Doesn't really seem fair, does it? Let a kid be a kid and all that, imagine what a dreadfully stunted adolescence poor Freddy will have? Yeah, and imagine what his life would be like if his family had stayed in Ghana and not won a US green card lottery seven years ago?

Actually, what Freddy left behind is one of the most stable nations in sub-Saharan Africa.

Ghana enjoys double the per-capita output of poorer countries in the region.

But before you question the Adu family's wisdom for leaving, understand that the average annual income in Ghana is US$290 and the life expectancy for males is 56 years. Freddy has a US$2-million, four-year guaranteed contract from Major League Soccer's (MLS) DC United.

At 14 he is already the highest paid player in the league. He also has a contract with Nike that pays him US$1-million a year.

'At 14 years old he's got more responsibility than most adults have,' former track star Michael Johnson, who now works as a sports consultant, told Sports Illustrated. 'The odds are against anyone in that position, to be honest.'

The odds to be ridiculously successful and well adjusted might be against him. But it seems to me Freddy has already done pretty well. His family should be financially set for life. Now just go play kid.

On the soccer pitch, Freddy is irresistible. He is a creative passer with tremendous pace who is deadly in one-on-one situations and he plays with a sense of joy that can't be taught or bought. He has a mega-watt smile that radiates with everyone from eight year olds playing tyke soccer to serpentine ad executives on Madison Avenue.

He is the total package for a game that has long been popular on American playgrounds but invisible on American televisions.

When Freddy made his professional debut, the game was naturally a sell out. He only played 30 minutes and was admittedly nervous. He was far more relaxed and effective in his second game.

'I felt like the old me,' he said. That would have been what, the 13 year old Freddy?

Actually, like a number of prodigies before him, Adu's composure is impressive. 'I'm not always going to have the greatest games of my life,' he said. 'There's going to be games when I absolutely suck. That happens to everybody. It'll be up to me to regroup.'

It's been a very good year for sporting prodigies.

Eighteen year old LeBron James has taken the NBA by storm and 14 year old Michelle Wie has done the same with women's golf.

But basketball and golf would still matter in the US if they had flopped. Even Mozart, the ultimate prodigy, could have wasted his talent away and people would still play the piano.

Freddy has to carry not only his league but soccer as well. Questions and problems abound. Does he have to worry more about acne than groupies? And if one of his teammates would like to pull the kid aside and have a heart to heart talk over a few beers, he will have to wait seven years to do it.

Some politicians have debated the merits of a 14 year old playing professionally. Some have even hinted at passing laws to prevent it. The NBA has a minimum age requirement of 18 and the NFL is currently fighting a legal battle to block university underclassmen from being draft eligible. Those are established leagues.

The MLS has no such luxury. It is barely on the radar. No matter if a kid is 14 or 18, if he can sell tickets he can play.

It's pretty fashionable to be anti-American these days, pretty easy as well. But if you strip away the political bluster and the imperialist arrogance, you find that there is indeed greatness in America. It really is the land of opportunity. In fact, it is the land of endless opportunity. This is truly what makes America great.

The ridiculously talented like Freddy Adu will get all the exposure, but there are millions of immigrants scrubbing toilets and washing dishes in the good old USA who are also allowed to dream big. None of this is lost on young Freddy. Even though the boy just wants to play, he says that is when he is happiest, he still knows the score. Not only is he trying to make soccer matter in the US - he's trying to make immigrants matter as well. It's easy to like this kid. It's even easier to hope he succeeds.