Last summer, a poor but much-loved Berlin soccer club found itself in desperate need of a new goal-scorer and broke its bank to bring in a young American from California named Bobby Wood. Thus began what in U.S. sports-writing parlance would be considered a fairy tale.
The problem is this is Germany, the home of the Brothers Grimm, whose fairy tales often have a dark edge, where kids will make decisions that leave them horribly lost. They will be scared. Life will be unpleasant. A wolf or a bear will show up, and it will be touch and go as to who will die. A valuable lesson will be learned, but some tales will end in sadness.
Which brings us to:
Once upon a time, Bobby Wood, a 14-year-old from Southern California, left home to seek the secret knowledge of soccer. He was traveling with a friend. Their plan was to spend 18 months learning how to play the game with a club known as TSV 1860 Munich in Germany. It was 7,000 miles from home.
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He left behind his best friends from eighth grade. They continued to study westward expansion and integers and to dream of weekends at the beach. He left behind his family, including a mother who he recalls “completely supported me, but I really hadn’t realized until recently how crazy what I did was. She had to be worried.”
He landed in a place where the soccer practice fields were covered by about three feet of snow — “I’d never seen anything like it” — and where everyone spoke in a language he didn’t understand. “I spoke English, and a little bit of Japanese. That was it.”
For six months, they lived with one host family. After a three-week summer break back in California, they returned to live with a different host. It was not an easy life.
They awoke in the morning to catch the bus to an international school. At the end of the school day, they caught a bus to practice with 1860’s youth academy. After several hours of practice, they’d head home for dinner. And then, of course, they had homework.
“It was hard,” Wood recalled, shaking his head and laughing at the memory. “Really hard. I remember really wanting a day off, a weekend off to recharge. But on weekends, we had games.”
At the end of the 18 months, his friend had had enough and returned to California. Wood decided to stay in Germany and was offered a spot in the club dorms.
“It was serious business,” he said. “I’d made the decision to do it all alone.”
He recalled it was a world without much sympathy for his plight.
“We’d talk and I’d say my situation made it difficult to stay focused, and they’d tell me that I was no different than any of the other kids in the dorms. The other kids, though, were maybe 50 miles from home. They didn’t get the difference.”
Still, he kept signing up for a new year when one ended. It wasn’t until he was 17 that he understood how the German professional club system worked, that the kids he played with could be moved up to the professional team if they were good enough or that they could be cut loose and abandoned if they weren’t.
He was good enough. Eventually, he was moved up to the club’s professional team, in the second level of German professional soccer. It was far from the heights of the legendary German Bundesliga or England’s Premier League, but it was still considered a difficult and highly competitive place to earn a living.
Five years after arriving as a lost child at the club, he made his professional debut. Eleven months later, he scored his first professional goal. That season (2012-13), he went on to score two more, but that was it for his scoring at Munich. The relationship soured.
Christian Arbeit, the spokesman for Union Berlin, said that when Union Berlin began talking to 1860 about bringing Wood to Berlin, they were told “he may not be mentally made for the game. He’s too arrogant. We met with him though, and realized ‘No, that’s not it.’ ”
Union Berlin decided to go all in. It needed a goal scorer to replace the one who had moved on to England, and Wood was it — a player who playing for the U.S. national team had scored goals against Holland and Germany.
Instead of trading players under contract, European soccer teams typically buy and sell the rights to sign those players. For Wood, Union Berlin agreed to a club-record payment to 1860 for the right to sign Wood.
That’s when the fairy tale took a Grimm twist.
He got off to a slow start. He didn’t score in his first game, or his second. He missed easy chances, the sort of chances he would expect to convert into goals. He hardly seemed a replacement for Sebastian Polter, the England-bound player who’d scored 14 goals for Union Berlin in his final season with the club.
“Around the club, you started to hear the grumbling, ‘Why did we spend so much to bring in this guy?’ ” Arbeit recalled. “People worried what would happen to us without a real goal scorer.”
Norbert Duewel, the coach, never wavered, and Wood scored a goal in his third game, but the team wasn’t winning. Duewel was fired four games into the season.
There were many diagnoses of what was wrong with Wood’s game. Soccer writer Mathias Bunkus of the Berliner Kurier says the consensus was that Wood didn’t trust his fellow players. He’d pass them balls that should have ended in scores, only to see them miss. He began to take it all on himself.
And there were some beautiful goals. Against Karksruhe in September he’d dribbled 50 yards toward the goal before two defenders sandwiched him and spun him to the ground, leaving the ball sitting alone, 10 yards from the goal. Before the defenders could react, Wood recovered his footing and slammed the ball through the legs of the charging goal keeper and into the net.
But always there was Polter in the background, Wood’s beast. Polter’s goals were beast goals, smashed into the net by a ferocious head, evoking guttural yells.
Wood was dancing through defenses, unlike anyone Union had known in recent days, but his goals were infrequent. Through November and 17 games, he had scored only five.
He scored two more before German soccer took its winter break, when players are sent home for Christmas and don’t return to train until January. Games start again in February.
The Wood that returned was a different player. He scored in the first game of 2016, and the second, and the third, and on through the eighth. By then, he had smashed the Union goal scoring record. And now, with just one more game to play — Sunday — he has scored 17 goals.
His Polter beast was dead.
Soccer writer Bunkus summed up Wood’s year from the eyes of fans:
“A lot was expected from the most expensive player in club history, the man filling the shoes of Polter. But he’s been worth every penny, and much more. He’s forever cemented himself a spot in the hearts of fans here, and in club history.”
This means it’s time for the lesson of the story to be revealed.
“I’ve learned to believe in myself,” Wood said. “I’ve learned I can handle what life throws at me. I’ve finally become the player I knew I could become. I’ve learned to treasure my home, and rely on my friends, the same group of friends I’ve had since sixth grade. I don’t think Germany changed me so much, just the way I play the game. It’s been hard, but I’ve learned to stay true to who I am.”
That’s not the end of the story, of course. Wood is only 23, and in the world of professional soccer, record-breaking goal scorers attract a lot of attention.
Wood is no exception.
The famous and very wealthy English club Liverpool has been watching him. The German giant Hamburg has been watching him. Many others are as well. They will come in this summer and tempt him away from Union. He said it’s flattering, but that he will leave all such discussion to his agent.
Arbeit expects him to go. “Would we like him to stay? Of course, but that’s not realistic,” he said.
The parting, Arbeit predicts, will be on very good terms.
“If he leaves, he goes with nothing but our best wishes and thanks for a wonderful season,” Arbeit said. “If he leaves, he will leave with three records: our most expensive signing, our top goal scorer, and our most lucrative sale.”
He smiles. “In other words, we and Bobby expect to live happily ever after.”
Matthew Schofield: @mattschodcnews