Column: Without parents’ sacrifices, there’d be no World Cup
ST. PETERSBURG, Russia (AP) To go with the golden boot, for the World Cup’s top scorer, and the best player’s golden ball, tournament organizer FIFA should consider a new award: A golden steering wheel. That prize could be for all the parents and mentors who schlepped in all types of weather to heaven knows how many practices and made all kinds of other sacrifices so soccer-obsessed kids could grow up to become the stars now within touching distance of the sport’s most coveted trophy.
It could, for example, go to the mother of Raheem Sterling, the forward to whom all of England will be looking for defense-shredding dribbles in the semifinal against Belgium on Wednesday. After the murder of his father when Sterling was age two, his mother put herself through school and worked as a hotel cleaner so her little boy wouldn’t want. Later, because his mother worked, it was Sterling’s elder sister who accompanied the budding footballer to training out by London’s Heathrow airport, an eight-hour trip, on three buses, daily.
”Without them, you wouldn’t even know me,” Sterling told The Players’ Tribune before traveling to Russia with England.
Other potential award candidates: Alain et Isabelle Griezmann, parents of Antoine, the striker whose goal-scoring skills France will need against Belgium in the other semifinal on Tuesday. Father and son did their own tour de France when he was a young lad, trying out at club academies that rejected him as too small and frail.
So, offered a chance by Real Sociedad in Spain, Griezmann and his parents went through the heartbreak of him leaving the family home in France when he was just 14. Only every few months did they see each other.
”His mother was crying. I restrained myself a bit, but inside it was hard. His brother, Theo, was crying. Everyone was crying,” Alain Griezmann said in a documentary, Griezmann Confidential, aired in France last year.
France right-back Benjamin Pavard says he will be eternally grateful for the sacrifices that his parents, Nathalie and Frederic, made on his behalf. He also left home as a boy for the chance of academy football.
After he scored in France’s 4-3 victory over Argentina in the World Cup’s first knockout round, with a crunching, long-range strike that was one of the tournament’s best goals, his parents recorded a video message for him that was shown on French TV, saying how proud they are.
Tears welled in the eyes of the 22-year-old Pavard when he saw it.
”They have made enormous sacrifices since I was very small,” Pavard told broadcaster TF1. ”The kilometers they did for me, just enormous. I can never thank them enough.”
Pavard has been one of the revelations of the World Cup, tearing up and down France’s right flank and forming a fearsome, incisive partnership with teenage sensation Kylian Mbappe . Pavard plays his club football in Germany for Stuttgart. He says he announced to his parents exactly a year ago that his goal was to make France’s World Cup squad.
Called upon by coach Didier Deschamps last November, he hit the post with a shot in his first match for Les Bleus, against Wales, offering a taste of the abilities he has unleased so spectacularly in Russia on football’s biggest stage.
”What’s happening to me is crazy,” he said. ”Just one year ago, I was unknown.”
Spare a thought, also, for Carine and Thierry Hazard, who have sons Eden and Thorgan in Belgium’s squad and two other sons who also play. The parents covered countless miles each year for their sons. And just imagine the piles of laundry.
Finally, let’s not forget the unpaid coaches who, years ago, first planted the seeds that have now blossomed into this World Cup crop. Legions of men and women who give up spare time and weekends to drive minibuses, tend to pitches, carry goals and lay out cones, run practice sessions, and mentor the players of tomorrow at amateur clubs like US Torcy on the eastern outskirts of Paris, where France midfielder Paul Pogba thrived as a kid.
The World Cup makes stars shine.
But it took many, many unsung people to first put them into orbit.
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester