Donovan the driving force for USA
Throughout this World Cup, every time he has faced the media, Landon Donovan has been the paragon of calm assurance. The measured approach, the unsmiling responses, the unflinching restraint made you wonder if there was an emotional, impromptu side to this most driven of footballers.
On Wednesday, we got our answer. Just as he did against Slovenia last week, when he picked up the mantle and drove his country on single-handedly when all seemed lost, so the pin-up boy of American soccer did it again.
Only this time, it was a win the US needed; this time they stood on the brink of a second successive World Cup group stage elimination with seconds to go. And this time, Donovan couldn't hold back the tears.
"I've been on a long journey these last four years," said Donovan, whose dramatic stoppage-time winner against Algeria changed his team's fortunes in a flash, from the agony of instant ignominy to topping Group C. "People who know me closest know how hard I've worked for this."
Donovan's reputation as the finest player in the history of the game in the United States could not have been reinforced more powerfully. It was he who set up the decisive move by sweeping the ball out to the right, and he who finished it off with a sweeping low drive into the corner after continuing his surging run.
Anything other than a USA win would have been a travesty if only for their wave upon wave of attacks and a second successive blunder by the officials. Having had Maurice Edu's effort harshly ruled out against Slovenia, Clint Dempsey was the man to be denied on this occasion, wrongly adjudged offside when he tapped in from close range. "We embody what Americans are about. We can either moan about it or get on with it," was Donovan's reaction after being mobbed by jubilant teammates who sprinted across the field to embrace their own equivalent of David Beckham.
Whilst the whole USA team battled for survival against a stubborn and often highly dangerous counter-attacking Algerian side, Donovan was a class above the rest, gaining another deserved man of the match award and his place as one the most influential midfield players of the tournament.
Topping the group was a triumph for a country still searching for credibility on the international stage. At the post-match press conference, Donovan, understood to be privately infuriated at having been released by Everton manager David Moyes at the end of last season, once again broke down. After sniffing back the tears to describe his goal, he paused but couldn't control his emotions when asked to elaborate on the low points he identified as having suffered.
"I've been through a lot in the last four years and I'm so glad it has culminated this way," said Donovan in a reference to the criticism he received after the United States were eliminated in 2006 and his divorce last year from his actress wife.
"The lowest point soccer-related was after the 2006 World Cup. Personally: July last year. Those experiences can harden you and help you grow if you look at them the right way. It all came together today. When you try to do things the right way it's good to see them get rewarded."
In his finest hour, coach Bob Bradley reached out to lay a touching hand on Donovan's shoulder before reserving effusive praise for his team's driving force and the American fans who packed the stands. "It is not often you see American soccer fans lining up on the road before the game, all dressed up and chanting and banging on the bus," said Bradley.
"As a team we've grown stronger, it's a special group. As a person Landon has grown up and matured. The challenge for him to take a bigger role and be more responsible as a leader has come at a good time. He's never shied away from challenges but has learned a lot. There is a special feeling when you know people are counting on you, when you know your character and personality are at the core of how the team does. Over the years, on and off the field, the way Landon has accepted this has made a huge difference."