STANFORD, Calif. – Half the globe away, Wayne Rooney has at least one paparazzo tailing him to have every detail, from the tying of his shoelaces to his choice of vacation beverage, meticulously chronicled by the British tabloids. Cristiano Ronaldo never has a camera lens far away from him, either, even when he's not willingly flashing flesh for women's magazine covers.
Meanwhile, the United States' preparations for the World Cup and the media's coverage of them have been all about … preparing for the World Cup.
On the campus of Stanford University, Landon Donovan offers cheery hellos to everyone from book-toting undergrads to gnarled journalists on his walk to training. Some players spent their day off on Monday swimming in a Palo Alto pool and taking underwater selfies. Others walked around town or hung out in their hotel untroubled by the kind of overt attention that accompanies virtually every other World Cup squad.
While there are some downsides to being a U.S. soccer player – namely that the sport remains well behind football, basketball and baseball in terms of national popularity – there are benefits, too. Unlike the Rooneys and Ronaldos of the soccer world, American players can find an oasis of peace just before the most frenetic of global tournaments.
"We are different from any country in the world in how we go about our business off the field," said DaMarcus Beasley, a veteran of three World Cups who is competing for a starting role on the left side of defense.
That difference manifests itself in multiple ways. Dinner times are not structured like they are for many international teams, and on the nights when the squad has meals prepared by U.S. Soccer's catering staff, there is a 90-minute window for players to wander into the dining room and eat at their leisure. On other nights, they are free to venture to nearby restaurants where they enjoy a level of anonymity that would be unthinkable in countries where soccer passions run deep to the core of society.
In the England camp, Rooney last week described the British media as "disgusting" after photographers snapped pictures of his physical sessions with two fitness trainers while on a short break with his family.
The training camps of U.S.'s Group G opponents Germany and Portugal are swamped with reporters on a daily basis, while Ghana officials have already grumbled quietly about some elements of that country's soccer-hungry media. But in the Bay Area, it is fair to say that things are somewhat more relaxed with none of the isolation and scrutiny other squads have to experience.
"We have lunch on campus. We get to interact with the students here and eat their food," Beasley said. "[Head coach Jurgen Klinsmann] knows when to give us rest and not to. You can go eat where you want and enjoy your night and enjoy yourself. It is very important that guys can get away from the normal.
Even the choice of clothing for U.S. training sessions is relatively unregimented.
"[There are some teams] where everyone has to wear a polo. … That's not the U.S. team. We are not like that," Beasley said. "For us to be comfortable and play the best on the field, we have to be comfortable off the field as well."
Klinsmann's laidback approach does not extend to the training field. He has put his troops through a grueling physical regimen aimed at honing them into peak condition for the World Cup, which begins on June 12. The U.S. faces Ghana in its opening game four days later.
With 30 players fighting for 23 spots on the plane to Brazil, there is a certain element of tension, especially among those thought to be on the bubble. Klinsmann's attempt to create a loose atmosphere has been a wise move.
"We are keeping it very flexible and very open," Klinsmann said. "For the American players who are used to college campuses it is more of a normal thing. For everybody who comes more from the European side, it is unbelievable, beautiful.
"It is very casual and focused on getting the work done."
That work enters a more technically oriented phase for the second week of camp leading up to next Tuesday's friendly against Azerbaijan at Candlestick Park. Soon after that, the final squad will be announced and the World Cup will be just around the corner.
That is when the spotlight will be turned up, the pressure will kick in and these leafy days in Stanford may start to turn into a fading memory.
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