Sometimes saying goodbye is the hardest thing to do—and when it happens in a shocking fashion, the reaction can be visceral to say the least. After all, who wants to say goodbye to the best player your team may have ever seen?
When Jurgen Klinsmann pulled the band-aid off and let Landon Donovan go, the reaction was all of that and more from USA fans.
Headlines like “Donovan dump a mistake U.S. soccer may regret at World Cup” from The Sporting News, “No Landon will be a devastating blow to USMNT World Cup hopes ” from WorldSoccerTalk.com and the collective freakout of the Twitter-verse were the norm.
However, I couldn’t be helped but to think this was a bit of sporting deja vu. That’s because I’ve seen this reaction from fans before, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that this was Brett Favre being released by the Green Bay Packers all over again.
The parallels between Favre’s departure from the Packers and Donovan’s release by Klinsmann are striking. Not only in the way fans reacted, but in the reality of who Favre and Donovan were at those seminal moments.
In Favre’s case there was the tearful retirement speech, only to be followed up by a change of heart and a messy divorce with the Packers. While Donovan decided to take a sabbatical from the sport of soccer for nearly a year, only to return for a meaningless Gold Cup tournament and late World Cup qualifying (when the USMNT had virtually guaranteed qualification without him).
The Green Bay Packers and US Soccer also made these decisions for similar reasons—mainly because they knew what was happening behind the scenes and on the practice field, and cutting the cord was the right thing to do, regardless of perception at the time.
For the Packers, it was all about moving on with life. They had danced around a possible Favre retirement for a few years, and when Favre made his choice in early 2008 they took it as time to move forward without him.
Ted Thompson and Mike McCarthy knew what the general public didn’t—they had the next superstar quarterback already on the roster and that Brett Favre’s better (not just his best) footballing days were behind him.
It didn’t mean Favre went away quietly. Who can forget the mess of Favre attempting to strong-arm the organization into either making him the starter or release him? Eventually Favre was traded and the Packers moved on with life, but it was perhaps the messiest of divorces we’ve ever witnessed in sports here in America.
Reactions to the divorce were brutal on all sides. Some were happy to see Favre go after a summer of unnecessary drama, while others couldn’t let go of the legend of Brett Favre and what he meant to Packers history. It was especially difficult given the topnotch season Favre just completed before exiting stage right, despite years of declining numbers before that final year (2006 saw him throw 18 touchdowns and 18 interceptions alone).
Again, it’s an eerie parallel to Donovan’s USMNT career, as Donovan returned from sabbatical to lead the USA to the Gold Cup championship in 2013. In the process he scored five goals and had seven assists, proving he was “back.” Never mind the fact that since that time Donovan had failed to score a single goal for club or country in nearly seven months, or that Donovan’s love for the game was starting to fade (hence the sabbatical).
Sure, he got a measure of revenge by finally putting the ball in the back of the net over the weekend (and becoming the all-time MLS goal scoring leader), but that was too little too late for the 2014 World Cup.
With Landon, his being left off the 23-man World Cup roster came as a clear surprise to himself and many others, and he let it bare that he feels he “deserves to be going to Brazil,”—just like Favre thought he “deserved” to come back to the Packers in any role he wanted.
The point is, these two players are undoubtably legends in their sports, but when it came time to say goodbye they were both shadows of the legends we had made them out to be.
Of course, we have the gift of hindsight in the case of Favre and clearly Green Bay did the right thing for the franchises future. I’m pretty sure Aaron Rodgers and another Super Bowl trophy speak to that truth.
Could we be in for another case of deja vu between these two legendary players at the 2014 World Cup? Advancing out of the “group of death” would prove a lot of Klinsmann critics wrong about his choice to exclude Donovan. So would watching DeAndre Yedlin or Julian Green play significant roles (even off the bench).
No matter the results at the 2014 World Cup, perhaps the parallels between Favre and Donovan should also be a lesson to all sporting fans—let’s trust in the coaches and decision makers in the know.
Letting go before it became embarrassing was the exact right move, and maybe just maybe the United States World Cup hopes are better off without Donovan taking up valuable experience for a younger player who needs it more.