Bobby Wood: 'I had no idea what the World Cup was'

The U.S. international opens up about his incredible journey from Hawaii to Hamburg, where he has become a regular player for the Bundesliga side.

When Bobby Wood started playing soccer at 9 years old, he had no clue people played the sport professionally. Raised in Hawaii, Wood couldn't catch European games on TV and it was too expensive to get kits mailed to the islands.

It's one thing to admit that he didn't know who David Beckham or Zinedine Zidane were, but he had never even heard of the world's most popular sporting event despite playing soccer on a local team as a kid.

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"I had no idea what the World Cup was," the now-U.S. national team forward wrote in a column for the Players' Tribune. "Seriously. No clue.

"I was nine years old and had only been playing soccer for a couple of years in Hawaii, and I was sitting around a TV with my rec team, watching the 2002 World Cup, and I had just one thought:

"'What the heck is going on?'"

For an American who plays in a major European league and has reached the highest level on the international stage, it may come as a surprise that Wood — who wasn't a "soccer-crazed kid," like the others before him — made it as a pro. 

But he found success on the pitch at an early age thanks to his speed. After Wood started out as a goalkeeper, his youth coach made him a full-time striker.

"Listen, I was a beach kid who kind of got thrown into all of this," wrote Wood, who only started playing soccer only because it was convenient for his mother.

"Which is why — when I was 10 years old and sitting in the living room of my buddy’s house — his mother had to explain to me what the World Cup was. I just couldn’t wrap my head around it. It was probably one of the first times I’d ever actually seen soccer on the TV."

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Wood was so good that his mother decided to move them to Irvine, California, where he could play on more competitive teams and get a better education. 

"Soccer was still just something fun. I saw the move as an adventure," he wrote.

"But once I got to California and started playing for a club in Irvine, something just … changed. Soccer became more than just a hobby, or something that I was sort of good at. It became competitive. And all of a sudden, that part of it — that part of me — just took over. I didn’t just want to play for fun anymore. I wanted to be the best."

Bobby Wood John Brooks Hamburg Hertha Bundesliga 030517.

Bobby Wood, Hamburg, 02072017

Wood acknowledges he wasn't the best player on his team in California, like he was in Hawaii, but the state is known for producing top American talent, after all. Although he wasn't picked for the Olympic Development Program, his coach mentioned a move to Europe.

"Going to Germany, you will be among the best in Europe," the coach told Wood. "You will get there, but you need to train in Europe."

Wood took him up on the offer. He bought winter clothes for the first time, and went on to train with 1860 Munich. 

"I'll never forget arriving in Munich and really seeing snow for the first time," he wrote. "I’d seen flakes here and there when we visited my grandparents in Japan, but this was on a different level."

Aside from adjusting to the inclement weather of Germany, Wood had to learn a new culture and style of play. He was only 14 when he arrived in Munich, and quickly discovered how "cutthroat" it was at the soccer academies. 

No one wanted a kid from California taking their spot on the teams.

"It also didn’t help that on my first day of practice, I was dressed like a n00b," he wrote. "My big, red jacket looked pretty ridiculous. I had my snow boots on. And I couldn’t speak the language. It just made me feel that much more … well … lonely."

Wood decided to take things one day at a time, and eventually the coaches began to see his potential. After three years he made the club's second team, but his future was up in the air after he was sidelined with a serious knee injury — twice.

"My contract was running out, and I hadn’t made it to the first team yet," he wrote. "Honestly, I didn’t know what my future was going to be in soccer at all. I thought I was going to have to to quit and go home."

But luck was on Wood's side. One of his youth academy coaches was named the second-team coach, and brought him back to the team. By the end of the season, the coach was promoted to the first team, and so was Wood.

He signed his first pro contract in Germany, and his unlikely career was starting to take off.

"The moment I signed it, I just thought, 'You’re really making it.' After being there for so long — through injuries, through loneliness — I was just really proud of myself."

Now Wood is with Bundesliga side Hamburg, where he has made 18 appearances and scored four goals this season. 

"To play in the Bundesliga … you can’t really describe it. Walking onto the pitch in front of thousands of screaming fans every weekend — it’s unlike anything I ever could have imagined," he wrote. "I think back to that day when I was 10 and watching the World Cup with my friends … everyone in their kits, faces painted, just pouring their hearts out. I didn’t understand it at the time. I didn’t understand what this sport means to people. Or, really, what it could mean to me."