The World Cup's Sideline Siblings

What happens when you've devoted your life to soccer—but it's your brother, not you, who ends up competing for global glory?
Mike Zusi, brother of the USMNT's Graham Zusi, shows his fandom. (courtesy of Mike Zusi)

Ryan Dempsey, Clint’s older brother by five years, can remember the first time he got dominated by his kid brother.

The summer after Clint’s freshman year of college, the two brothers went out on the field to play “World Cup.” It’s a game, the kind of thing that you start playing at the end of practice when you are seven or eight years old: You shout out your country, claiming dibs on the United States or Brazil or Mexico, then mob the box, pouncing on balls, trying to score first, celebrating madly when your shot goes in, pretending like you are the star on TV with the whole world watching.

So the Dempsey brothers and some friends were playing their version of World Cup, a much more intense version than the kind you probably played as a kid. “Lots of fouls, running so hard we’d throw up,” says Ryan. Ryan’s girlfriend was sitting on the sideline. “Of course I want to impress her,” says Ryan, his Texan drawl a little stronger than Clint’s. “I was trying every move I knew. I tried to push Clint off the ball—he was too strong. It was like trying to knock over a telephone pole with my shoulder. And this whole time, I’m realizing my girlfriend is watching. I was getting more and more pissed.”

Then the finale: “He ‘Africaned’ me—that’s what we call it anyway. He put the ball on one side of me, ran around the other side. I got a good hold of his wrist—he got my dad’s carpenter wrists, stronger and thicker than most ankles. I was hanging on him, like a towel tied around him, flopping around like crazy. He shoots and scores, and I just start cussing him out. My girlfriend chewed me out in the car for acting like such an asshole about it,” Ryan says, laughing.

Of course, 10 years later, Clint would represent the real United States, an actual World Cup team, and when he’d celebrate a goal, it wouldn’t be pretend.

***

Bruce Arena, former US national team coach, once described Clint’s game: “Clint will just try shit.” Ryan doesn’t claim to have given Clint his style, but as the older brother, he did have an influence. Ryan was the first player in the family, the first obsessed with the futbol that was all around him in the predominately Hispanic, hardscrabble south-side of Nacogdoches, Texas, where the Dempseys grew up in a trailer parked on their grandmother’s land. Ryan introduced the game to Clint, and the brothers played constantly: On the side of their grandparents’ house, in the streets, in the adult Hispanic league, on the dirt Nacogdoches fields that are now a part of American soccer folklore.

“A real official game was like an afterthought,” Ryan says. “Pickup was what we cared about.” When the brothers weren’t playing, they were watching the South American leagues on the Spanish-language channels. “I was infatuated with Latin American soccer—the step-overs, the way they seemed to dance with the ball, the whole culture.”

Most of the kids they grew up with are no longer around: “A couple got deported, a couple got arrested, a couple are dead.” This fight-for-what-you’ve-got childhood, Ryan says, played into their passion for the South American league: “The players weren’t clean cut—they looked like they were straight off the field we drove by on our way home, when I would see middle-aged Latin immigrants in Nacogdoches, with mullets and shit like that.” Carlos Valderrama, the Colombian center midfielder with a giant blond Afro, was his favorite. “When I saw him the first time, I thought he was the coolest guy in the world. I wanted to get a perm so I could be just like him.”

The Dempsey family in Brazil, with Ryan in the back left (courtesy of Ryan Dempsey)

And Clint, who did whatever Ryan did and who loved whatever Ryan loved, soaked up this South American approach to the game. “Even at five years old, when you’re pretty much just a moving cone, you could see that Clint got it, understood what you’re supposed to be doing,” Ryan says. “He’d mimic all the guys we’d just seen on TV—Maradona, Caniggia, Valderamma, Brazilian, Argentine, and Colombian players.”

At age 10, Clint began to be able to pull off a move here and there against his 15 year old brother. “He’d dip one way, I’d fall for it—you know, a 10 year old beating me. And then he’d do what I did when I scored, which was celebrate like crazy. Then I’d punch him in the chest, pound on him, all that.”

Once Ryan was old enough to drive, he went out to the pickup games he’d passed, games with fully grown guys from El Salvador, Honduras, Mexico. He took Clint along. “I wanted to be a hero, show my little brother I could kick ass,” Ryan says, “but he wanted to be his own hero.”

Clint wasn’t the only kid out there, but he was the only one who played with the adults. (“And maybe I was the only guy who didn’t know better than to ask if he could play,” adds Ryan.) The men, many of whom were ex-pros and former semi-pros, “treated him like a nephew,” Ryan says. “They taught him tricks, exposed him to stuff.” Here, on the pickup field—where pulling off a move, nutmegging somebody, “trying shit” is highly valued—is where the Dempseys learned the game.

Presented by

Gwendolyn Oxenham

Gwendolyn Oxenham is the author of Finding the Game: Three Years, Twenty-Five Countries, and the Search for Pickup Soccer and the co-director of Pelada, a documentary about pickup soccer games around the world.

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