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I often am asked to compare the experience of competing in the World Cup to the experience of representing my country in the Olympics. It's an interesting question, and the short answer is that the two events are very different -- and both are amazing.
I grew up watching the Olympics with my family, so I was drawn from a very young age to the spirit and nationalism that surrounds the Games. I wanted to find a way to be a part of the Olympic spirit no matter what that entailed. The Olympics have this unique ability to bring spectators who prefer one specific sport together with other fans in cheering on all the athletes from their country. I also remember watching the 1982 and '86 World Cups on Univision with my father and marveling at Maradona's breathtaking dribbling runs. Back then, when I asked neighbors if they were following the Olympics, the general response would be, "Of course." But if I happened to ask them if they had caught the World Cup match between England and Argentina, the response was more like, "What world, and whose cup?"
The World Cup is "the" event for a soccer player. When it's happening, the players and FIFA do not have to share the stage with anyone. The tournament, the festivities, the television and all that surrounds the event is there for the players. You have a very clear focus on what your goal is. Winning the World Cup is the crowning achievement for any soccer player, and there is an incredible sense of pride that goes along with that success. You are not just showing that your team is the best in the world, but that your country's style and brand of soccer are the best.
The Olympics has a much more social atmosphere than the World Cup. Usually athletes are housed in the Olympic Village, which means you are constantly integrated with athletes not only from your own country, but from other countries. Meal times are a great opportunity to sit and people watch and see what famous athletes might walk by. Logistically, it is harder on the team staff to maintain a schedule, because your team is one of so many that is competing. Your match, though important to you and your teammates, is just another event on a complex schedule of sporting events. But once the Games begin, you are just as focused on your ultimate goal -- and that is to win the gold medal.
At the World Cup, you are striving to be on the top step of the podium, raising the Cup for the entire world to see. And at the Olympics, you are motivated to stand on the top step of the podium to have the gold medal hung around your neck and to hear your country's national anthem. Both experiences are thrilling, and both hold a very special and dear place in my heart.
I don't know whether it is the Olympics or the World Cup that inspires more kids to participate in soccer. I think soccer purists would tend to lean toward the World Cup, with its singular focus on that one sport. At the same time, it's a great day for soccer in the U.S. anytime a kid sees the Americans play in the Olympic tournament and starts dreaming of competing for this country. Whether it's the World Cup or the Olympics providing the inspiration, I would say it's a win for us all.