Most professional soccer players dream about the day they can represent their country in the biggest competition in sports, The FIFA World Cup. For Ricardo Clark, it was more that just a dream — it felt like destiny.
“It has always been a dream of mine but I feel like in some ways it was just something I was meant to do and be a part of,” said Clark.
Growing up, Clark never truly had the opportunity to watch soccer on TV, so he and his brother resorted to an old VHS tape that his father had kept around — “Giants of Brazil.” The Clark brothers would watch the highlights of the 1970 World Cup and the Brazilian National Team’s eventual victory to get just a taste of the beautiful game.
“Pele was the main star and he was one of the people I idolized growing up,” said Clark. “My brother and I used to watch that tape, I don't know, hundreds of times. It was amazing. That really solidified what the World Cup was all about and how significant it was to the game of soccer. It was just really cool to see myself in that situation.”
Clark followed in the footsteps of his father, playing soccer at both the high school and collegiate levels. The midfielder was drafted by the New York Metro Stars in the 2003 Major League Soccer SuperDraft, beginning his professional soccer career. After six years and three clubs in MLS, the Georgia native traveled to Germany to play for Eintracht Frankfurt.
Just over a month after his first start with Eintracht, Clark was named to the 23-man U.S. Men’s National Team that would travel to South Africa for the 2010 FIFA World Cup.
“I grew up idolizing those who had played in the World Cup, so it was a combination of feelings and emotions,” said Clark. “It was excitement, it was nervousness, it was emotional because it was something I worked hard for my whole life.
“I’m not the type of guy to get too excited about stuff but once they announced it I gave my wife a call. It wasn't anything too elaborate, it was more just a ‘I'm going to South Africa.’ I think she was probably more excited than me.”
Clark began his journey to South Africa with friends and family in tow. When he was not working, he was able to explore the country with his wife, son and father. The group stayed at exquisite resorts and got a feel for the culture and land of South Africa.
“I think it was the first time I had ostrich. We went on one safari and it was the first time I had seen a lion up close. At the end of the day, the cool thing was I got to experience that with my son and my father. My dad had coached me until I was about 12 years old, he coached me all of my youth life. For him to be there and experience that with me was something special,” said Clark.
As Opening Day approached, Clark was named to the Starting XI for USMNT’s first match against England.
“I remember riding to the game on the bus and just feeling a little bit emotional about where I'd come from and where I was at and how many people worked hard to help me get there — my parents, my coaches back home, my brother and just everyone in my family who had been there for me along the way,” Clark reminisced. “So, once the game came about it was surreal. I kind of had to pinch myself just to make myself realize I was in the moment right there.”
Fast forward to the final match of the group stage — The Stars and Stripes faced Algeria and needed three points to advance. Coming up on the 90th minute, the match was scoreless and there was minimal time for a goal from either side. However, the USMNT was not ready to go home.
Landon Donavan found that last-minute goal for the USA when Clint Dempsey’s shot was stopped but led to a fortuitous rebound. Donavan was in the perfect spot to send the ball to the back of the net and the U.S. to the Round of 16.
“Landon was one of our players that we looked up to in moments like those,” said Clark, “I remember Edson Buddle, who was my roommate at the time, was involved in the play as well. It was funny because you could just see, especially with the last call, you could just see everything building up to a monumental finish.
“Just running over to the corner — I was probably one of the first or second ones in that pile up. But it was awesome just to be able to advance as well. Being the U.S., you're not a superpower like Spain or Italy or what not so your main goal is to advance out of the group and whatever happens after that, it's all good. So, that was an accomplishment of ours. It was a big game for us and I was thankful to be a part of it.”
Clark and the USMNT suffered eventual heartbreak in the next round as they faced Ghana. The Stars & Stripes were eliminated from the World Cup in a 2-1 defeat.
“I thought we had a good line after group stage. To fall to Ghana the way we did — it was heartbreaking,” Clark expressed.
“It was a tough game. I know personally it was a tough game for me because I came in and I felt ready and then I made some mistakes. Obviously, everybody makes mistakes, but I expect a lot out of myself. I'm hard on myself. I always strive for perfection in everything I do so when I make a mistake I'm mad at myself about it. I think we did well to fight back into the game. It was tough because I think if we had another moment we would have done well to come out on top but that's that way the game goes. I'm a competitor at the end of the day so it was a tough one to swallow. But it was an experience I was able to learn and grow from as a player. I’m a better player because of it. I’m very thankful and blessed to have that experience.”
Upon returning home from his World Cup experience, Clark and his wife took the time to re-create memories for his son since he was too young to remember much at the time.
“We framed his South African tickets for the different games that he went to and they are up in his room. Even though he probably doesn't remember it he has something there just to remind him of it,” said Clark.
The memories of playing in South Africa and sharing this event with his family will stay with Clark for years to come. As his son gets older, Clark will have the opportunity to show him what his father has accomplished — and his son may just be able to follow in his footsteps, just as Clark did with his father to get to be the player he is today.