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From Honolulu to Hamburg

Mar 9 2017
Photo by
Marwan Shousher/Nike
Photo by
Marwan Shousher/Nike
Bobby Wood
Hamburger SV / USMNT
Mar 9 2017

I had no idea what the World Cup was.

Seriously. No clue.

I was nine years old and had only been playing soccer for a couple of years in Hawaii, and I was sitting around a TV with my rec team, watching the 2002 World Cup, and I had just one thought:

What the heck is going on?

I mean, really, I just wasn’t a soccer-crazy kid. In fact, a few years earlier when my mom signed me up to play for the first time, I was pissed when I found out what she had done. I wanted to be a football player — the helmet, shoulder pads, tackling guys to the ground. All that stuff.

Playing soccer over football wasn’t about safety or money — or anything else — for my mom. What it came down to was the carpool. Yep. My mom worked a lot, and it turned out that one of the women who used to drive me to school had signed her son up to play soccer. So that meant I was playing soccer too.

And let’s just say that at my first soccer practice, it was pretty clear I had no idea what I was doing. I showed up with some $10 cleats from Sports Authority. I had those shin guards, you know the ones that go around your feet with the ankle guards? Classic rec soccer gear. And to top it all off, I didn’t have soccer socks — just regular gym socks that didn’t go all the way up over my shin guards.

I was a newbie, and I looked ridiculous.

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And as bad as I looked, I didn’t play much better on the field either. So they put me between the pipes.

“Alright, Bobby, you just go in goal and we’ll take it from there,” my coach told me, waving to the other end of the pitch. Hey, you gotta start somewhere, right?

So, I just took it one day at a time.

I didn’t know all the rules, but I knew I had one job: Do not let the ball go in the goal. And you know what? I actually wasn’t that bad.

But my coach noticed something else: my speed. He tried me out at striker and for a few weeks I pulled double duty. I’d start a game on the front line and try to score a goal or two, and then switch positions to play in goal. Except I was a little better at putting the ball in the back of the net than keeping it out. So playing striker became my full-time job on the field.

At that point, there wasn’t really any strategy to my game. I just sort of ran around. Wherever the ball was, I kind of just went after it.

Like I said, you gotta start somewhere, right?

I still wasn’t a soccer-mad kid, though. Growing up in Hawaii, we didn’t get a lot of matches from Europe on TV. And trying to order and get kits mailed to the islands? Yeah, that wasn’t going to happen — too expensive. Even if I could have afforded one, I wouldn’t have known what club to get.

I didn’t even know you could play soccer as like an actual job. As far as I knew, Zidane might as well have been a tennis player. David Beckham? Who? I know it sounds crazy! I know. But, listen, I was a beach kid who kind of got thrown into all of this.

Which is why — when I was 10 years old and sitting in the living room of my buddy’s house — his mother had to explain to me what the World Cup was. I just couldn’t wrap my head around it. It was probably one of the first times I’d ever actually seen soccer on the TV.

So, there’s all these countries? And they each have a team? And this is a pretty big deal, huh?

So how did a kid from Honolulu who was so clueless about soccer end up playing in the Bundesliga?

Well, that starts with my mom as well.

I still didn’t know much about soccer culture, but I was getting pretty good on the pitch. So my mom made the decision to move our family to Irvine, California. There’d be better teams for me to play on, and my sisters and I would get the opportunity to go to better schools, as well.

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As for me, I wasn’t thinking about the game in those terms yet. Soccer was still just something fun. I saw the move as an adventure.

But once I got to California and started playing for a club in Irvine, something just … changed. Soccer became more than just a hobby, or something that I was sort of good at. It became competitive. And all of a sudden, that part of it — that part of me — just took over. I didn’t just want to play for fun anymore. I wanted to be the best.

We got Fox Soccer Channel when we moved and I started watching Premier League matches on the weekend. Most of the time, I’d get up early to watch Arsenal and Thierry Henry. I don’t know what it was about Henry — maybe it was because he was a striker, too — but the way he moved on the pitch just mesmerized me. He sort of just … glided. There were no tricks or anything to his game, and the way he scored goals was so pure. It was amazing to see.

I soon found out that California was sort of the breeding ground for top soccer talent in the U.S. I wasn’t nearly the best player on the team, like I had been in Hawaii.  I never got picked for the Olympic Development Program. I never got picked for a national team either.

Which is why when my club coach came up to me one day after practice to talk about playing in Europe, I didn’t really get it at first. Honestly, I didn’t think I deserved it. I didn’t think it was fair to the other guys I was playing with.

“Going to Germany, you will be among the best in Europe,” he told me. “You will get there, but you need to train in Europe.”

Play in Europe? I’d never even been to Europe.

But my coach saw something in me, and for whatever reason, I was getting this opportunity to go to Germany and train with 1860 Munich. My mom and I talked it over, and just like with California, I sort of saw it as another adventure. If it didn’t work out, I’d just come back. What did I have to lose?

Of course, there was one thing I needed to get before I left. A real winter coat.

Again, I was a kid who’d only ever lived in Hawaii and Southern California. Shorts were sort of a staple in my closet, and you never needed more than a hoodie. Buying winter clothes was a whole new experience. Winter boots. Long pants. A giant puffer jacket. This is going to sound stupid, but I didn’t even know they made jackets like that. Like I said, I was a pure beach kid.

Imago/ZUMA Wire

I’ll never forget arriving in Munich and really seeing snow for the first time. I’d seen flakes here and there when we visited my grandparents in Japan, but this was on a different level.

For the first week, it was so cool. Then it got old. Fast. Especially when I found out that, unlike in California, where we often postponed matches because of rain or whatever, soccer didn’t stop for anything in Germany. Just toss out the yellow footballs so we could see them and we were good. We would train outside no matter the weather. Wind. Rain. And yes, snow.

So it lost its appeal pretty quickly.

After a couple of weeks, I learned that there were a lot of other things that were different about playing in Germany.

The academies in Europe — I’m not going to lie — are pretty cutthroat. We were only 14 years old, but boys got sent home because the coaches thought that they just weren’t good enough. This wasn’t like in the U.S., where everyone plays to have fun and gets a participation trophy at the end of the season. I was expected to be a professional — training and playing seven days a week in hopes of the slight chance that I would make the first team at some point.

And being the American coming in? I felt like an outsider. I could sense that the other guys weren’t happy about the new kid from California coming in a maybe taking a spot. And I knew that I was going to have to prove myself that much more. It felt like a shadow that was constantly hanging over me.

It also didn’t help that on my first day of practice, I was dressed like a n00b. My big, red jacket looked pretty ridiculous. I had my snow boots on. And I couldn’t speak the language. It just made me feel that much more … well … lonely.

It doesn’t really matter what country you’re in, I think. Kids are always going to find little things to pick on. I’d go to the cafeteria and sit down at a table and they’d just look at me. I didn’t speak German, but the feeling of someone talking about you is universal. Yeah. So it was a little like that. Plus, when I sat down, they made it pretty clear too.

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“We don’t want you here,” one kid told me.

That happened a lot, actually. And on the pitch, I got yelled at in German when I would make a mistake. It’d be the same mistakes others would make. But when you’re different, well, that’s all the reason they need.

I think I Skyped my mom everyday. She’d send care packages of bagels and Fruit Gushers (still my favorite snack, by the way). Of course, there were times when I thought that maybe I should just go home. I missed my friends. I missed my school. I missed my club teammates. Back in California, those guys were my best friends — and all these years later, they still are. At 1860 though there was a language barrier. And I was getting bullied and I didn’t know how to stand up for myself.

And then I made a decision.

One day at a time.

That was it. I was thinking too much about what was going on and I wasn’t focusing on my game. I was thinking so much about all the things I missed that I had forgotten why I was there. I was there to play soccer. So I was just going to play one day at a time.

I learned to let everything else go. It wasn’t easy, but every day I just showed up for practice. I showed up for matches. I controlled the only thing I could: What I did on the pitch.

My coaches started to see my potential. Eventually, after three years at the academy, I earned a spot on the second team. But that didn’t go quite as I had planned. A month after I moved up to the second team, I had my first meniscus surgery. I’d been playing through the pain in my knee for a pretty long time, but it had gotten so bad that I couldn’t even walk. I rehabbed for months, got back into training, got back on the pitch. But three weeks later, it tore again.

I didn’t know what my future was going to be at 1860. My contract was running out, and I hadn’t made it to the first team yet. Honestly, I didn’t know what my future was going to be in soccer at all. I thought I was going to have to to quit and go home. After having spent years away from my family and friends, after everything I had gone through, I didn’t want it to just end. But the club was hesitant to re-sign me with all the problems I had with my knee.

And then, I got a little bit of luck.

Imago/ZUMA Press

One of my coaches from the youth academy was named the second-team coach and he pulled me aside.

“Just stay one more year and get your knee healthy,” he told me. “I believe in you.”

And he really did. He was one of the few people I felt I had in my corner. So I stayed and I worked on my knee for a year and got back onto the second team. And by the end of the season? Well, my coach was named manager of the first team and he brought me along with him.

I signed my first professional contract with a club.

The moment I signed it, I just thought, You’re really making it. After being there for so long — through injuries, through loneliness — I was just really proud of myself.

One day at a time.

It’s crazy to think about how everything’s sort of turned out: going from playing on the beaches in Honolulu to signing with Hamburg last year.

To play in the Bundesliga … you can’t really describe it. Walking onto the pitch in front of thousands of screaming fans every weekend — it’s unlike anything I ever could have imagined. I think back to that day when I was 10 and watching the World Cup with my friends … everyone in their kits, faces painted, just pouring their hearts out. I didn’t understand it at the time. I didn’t understand what this sport means to people. Or, really, what it could mean to me.

I get it now.

I get it every time I score a goal. In an instant, you can make 50,000 people happy.

I don’t know how to put the feeling that gives me into words. But I’ll never forget my first Bundesliga goal. It was in my debut last August against FC Ingolstadt.

I don’t think I’d ever jumped so high. Everything I felt in that moment, the days training, then wondering if I’d ever play again, they were with me in that moment, along with all the joy and pride I was feeling. It was a realization that I belonged, Yes. You’re here. You can do this.

And playing for a club like Hamburg it’s different. It hasn’t been easy, but even when we’ve been in last place, our fans have been there. Fifty-thousand people fill up the stadium. Every week. That doesn’t happen everywhere, you know? That’s special. So every time I put my Hamburg shirt on I feel it. I look at the clock when we walk out to matches. It counts every second that the club has been in the top flight of the Bundesliga since the league was founded, nearly 54 years ago.

I feel the tradition that’s all around this club and what it means to the city.

I want to do a lot for this club. And as an American, I want to do a lot in this league. And right now, that means fighting with Hamburg to survive in the Bundesliga, to keep the clock running forever.

One day at a time.

Bobby Wood
Hamburger SV / USMNT