Andy Najar, Honduras And His Media-Driven National Team Tug Of War
"When you're a professional, you know that your job is to play but also you have other duties, and talking to the press is one of them. I'm starting to understand that more and more," he told me last fall, toward the conclusion of his rookie of the year season with D.C. United.
He said this during a one-on-one interview at RFK Stadium, from which I had been covering soccer for various publications for a decade.
In all that time, I had never encountered a player more ill at ease while talking to a reporter, and that included high school and college kids, non-English speakers and even Mia Hamm.
Najar spent twice as much time looking down at his phone as he did looking at me.
There certainly are mitigating factors. He's shy -- especially when dealing with English speakers he doesn't know -- and he's a 17-year-old from small-town Honduras for whom change has happened very fast.
In the spring of 2009 he was a high school student in Alexandria, Va. A year later he was playing in MLS and on his way to becoming the inspiration for a tug-of-war between fans and media in his native and adopted countries. It's been the question on everybody's lips. What nation will the teenager with the dazzling footwork and an on-field maturity beyond his years choose to represent?
"It's normal for fans to ask me that question," he told me. "you have your supporters that support their national team and they would like to know one way or the other. I tell them just to be patient and that I haven't made up my mind."
That message seems to have been well received here in the U.S., where most people understand the complexities of the citizenship process, Bob Bradley's depth chart and the teenage brain.
His Catracho compatriots, however, have afforded Najar no such courtesy.
The Honduran media, and we can only assume that they're fueled by the interest of their readers, has been relentless. Stories about which way he may or may not be leaning are a regular occurrence, and accuracy appears to be far less important than frequency and intrigue.
Of particular note was a November story in La Tribuna in which Najar's father was quoted saying that his son might be leaning toward the U.S. after he rejected an offer to join Honduras for a friendly against Panama. It turned out those quotes were inaccurate, and that league and tutoring commitments were among the reasons for his decision.
That had to have been a stress that Najar and his family didn't need.
Javier Padilla has been telling reporters that he plans to travel to the U.S. to try and entice Najar to play in April's World Cup qualifying tournament.
That preseason distraction was compounded on Wednesday by an article in Diario Deportivo Diez that appeared after a Diez reporter interviewed Najar at D.C. United's preseason training camp in Florida. That reporter decided to write that Najar gave a "press conference" and pledged his international future to Honduras.
Here's what Najar actually said (translated):
"Let's say that I've already decided to play for Honduras -- we've thought about it a lot and it would be an honor to be able to represent my country, the land where I was born. I haven't formally received the callup from the under 20s."
Najar was speaking hypothetically -- that if he were to play for his native country, that he would consider it an honor. The Diez report omitted that qualifier and, instead, wrote that Najar had made his final decision.
"Andy was misquoted by whoever it is who wrote this," Najar's agent, Chris Megaloudis, told FanHouse in an email. "I spoke to Andy afterward and he confirmed that while he is closer to making a decision he has by no means chosen one over the other. When the time is right he will address the media."
He may have to do so shotgun-wedding style.
Given Najar's existing aversion to the press, the borderline harassment he's getting from back home is not going to make American reporters' jobs any easier. Furthermore, it ultimately may backfire on Honduras.
It's not impossible to imagine a fed-up Najar deciding that he wants no part of the Catracho circus and pledging his international future to the U.S. It brings to mind Princess Leia's warning to the Imperial general in Star Wars -- "The more you tighten your grip, the more star systems will slip through your fingers."
Should newly-appointed Honduras coach Juan Carlos Osorio ask Najar to play in this summer's CONCACAF Gold Cup, it could force the player's hand. It also could push Najar -- who has said repeatedly that he wants to focus on building his career at D.C. United -- further away.
There are times we lament the fact that the U.S. is not as fanatical about soccer as many other countries. But that can be a blessing, too.
It's the reason that players like Guillermo Barros Schelotto and Thierry Henry consider coming to MLS. And it may be a factor in steering Najar toward a far saner, and potentially more rewarding, international career in the red, white and blue. That option may be worth the wait.
"I'm grateful to this country because it has give me an opportunity to play professionals soccer. That was always my dream, and like most Latin Americans who come here,I came looking for a better opportunity in life," he told me last fall. "When I got here to the US, I told myself that I wanted to be something in life."