Kobe Bryant helped make soccer cool in the United States

Kobe Bryant’s shocking and untimely death Sunday in a helicopter accident that also claimed the life of his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and seven others is a profound loss for his family, friends, millions of fans across the globe and, of course, for basketball.

As one of the NBA’s all-time greats, there’s no telling the influence Bryant, who was just 41, could’ve had on the game in the future. Coach? General manager? Team owner? All of that and more surely would’ve been available to Bryant down the line, if he wanted.

And if he wanted it, look out. For all his on-court accomplishments —multiple NBA titles and Olympic gold medals, in addition to a horde of personal accolades — his post-career life could’ve been every bit as impactful as Michael Jordan’s.

Yet the tragedy is also a major blow for another sport: soccer.

Kobe Bryant was everpresent in soccer in the United States. (REUTERS/Rory Carroll)
Kobe Bryant was ever present in soccer in the United States. (REUTERS/Rory Carroll)

Bryant was a lifelong fan of the world’s most popular game, an obsession that began while growing up in Italy. His father, Joe Bryant, spent the final years of his journeyman hoops career there in the 1980s and early ’90s, when Diego Maradona was winning titles with Napoli. At that time, Serie A was considered the very best league in Europe. Bryant’s love of the other round ball was on display as recently as two weeks ago, when he stole the show as a guest at MLS media day at LAFC’s Banc of California Stadium.

Don’t underestimate how much Bryant’s affection for futbol helped it enter into the mainstream in the United States. When the then-17-year-old leaped directly from high school to the Lakers in 1996, the beautiful game was anything but ubiquitous in this country. The World Cup, held there for the first time two years earlier, had been a rousing but fleeting success, with coverage of the sport disappearing as soon as the tournament was done. European club matches were almost impossible to find on television outside of an occasional Champions League offering. MLS, with just 10 teams, was less than three months into its maiden season, with its survival still a decade away from being assured.

Soccer was treated with disdain by the masses, viewed as a foreign invention enjoyed only by those who didn’t have the stones to excel at the traditional American pastimes. Bryant could’ve hidden his love for soccer. Instead, as he evolved into Jordan’s successor as the NBA’s face and a global pitchman, he was among soccer’s biggest advocates, wearing his fandom on his sleeve at every opportunity and helping put world football on the map stateside in as meaningful a way as any actual footballer could have.

Today, many of the world’s elite soccer players are avid NBA fans, and vice versa. Much of that phenomenon can be traced back to Kobe Bryant, and the respect he had for his peers as athletes and competitors. He knew how tough they really were. His legendary basketball mind was fascinated by the way teams attacked and defended as a single unit.

It was Bryant who sought out Lionel Messi and introduced himself to him in an Olympic Village cafeteria in 2008, not the other way around. In 2010, days after winning his fifth and final NBA crown (and being named MVP of the Finals), he flew to South Africa to cheer on the U.S. men’s national team at the World Cup.

Megan Rapinoe and the USWNT were among those that Kobe Bryant actively supported in the world game. (Photo by Katharine Lotze/Getty Images)
Megan Rapinoe and the USWNT were among those that Kobe Bryant actively supported in the world game. (Photo by Katharine Lotze/Getty Images)

He would take his family to MLS games and attend matches on trips abroad. Everywhere he went, he seemed as excited to meet professional soccer players as they did to meet him. If the position of international sports ambassador existed within the U.S. government, Bryant, who remained fluent in Italian and spoke Spanish better than he let on, would’ve been an obvious fit.

In recent years, the father of four daughters with his wife, Vanessa, had become a vocal advocate of the country’s world champion women’s side, calling the athletes role models for his children and using his stature (and immense social media following) to bring attention to, among other things, USWNT members’ desire to not have to play matches on artificial turf.

It’s no surprise, then, that the entire soccer community seemed to be mourning the loss of Bryant as hard as everyone else on Sunday. Long retired greats from Thierry Henry and Mia Hamm to current stars such as Kylian Mbappe and Neymar Jr. — who paid tribute to the icon after scoring for Paris Saint-Germain shortly after the awful news broke — posted pictures of intimate moments they shared with Bryant.

That shouldn’t be forgotten. Kobe Bryant felt soccer’s pull before most of his countrymen did, and his own fandom gave it social currency. Part of the reason the game resonates with young Americans like never before now is because No. 24 thought it was cool, and in turn he made it acceptable for others to like it, too. It’s only a tiny part of the man’s legacy, of course. It’s a significant one nonetheless.

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