I was fifteen, and watching the game on television. I remember thinking that this is what we had been waiting for. “We” meaning American fans of “the beautiful game”— o jogo bonito, as the Brazilians call it—a style of soccer that had eluded us for so long. We lived for the double step-over that turns a player’s legs into small windmills, feet moving from the inside to the outside of the ball in quick succession. Or the Cruyff Turn, in which a player drags the ball between his legs, allowing him to change direction before a defender is able to respond. Or the roulette, in which a player, running at full speed, spins his body three hundred and sixty degrees atop the ball in graceful synchrony. Adu moved with this kind of grace. It was exhilarating to watch.
There was another “we” I thought of as well: black boys, who might not have to look across the ocean any longer to see a global soccer star who resembled one of us. America had never had an international black soccer superstar. We had stars, to be sure. Cobi Jones and Eddie Pope had been the faces of the M.L.S. during their time, but neither made his way to success on the world stage. Earnie Stewart and Tim Howard spent a number of years in Europe but never quite secured a place among the true global élite. My childhood room was decorated with posters of black players from other countries, filling the space American players did not: Thierry Henry, Jay-Jay Okocha, Didier Drogba. I was proud of them in ways that felt familial, no matter how different their worlds were from mine.