‘Tobin Heath is secretly Brazilian.’ That’s what a hand-made poster, held high outside the team hotel in Belo Horizonte said.
Amusing, yes, but if “being Brazilian” in the soccer world is generally defined as being remarkable with the ball at your feet, then perhaps the meaning was right on, if not the nationality.
Heath is a huge fan of Brazilian soccer so it’s not so surprising that the way she plays the game and her relationship with the ball have often been compared to that of Brazilian legend Ronaldinho, whose incredible abilities have made him both a crowd-pleaser and a dangerous attacking weapon on the field.
“Brazil is one of my favorite countries and a huge inspiration to me being a football player,” Heath said. “I drew so much from learning about the game from this country and from the players of this country. For me, this is a special place and I feel really lucky to have the Games here because Brazil is all about this sport. For us, it’s the Olympic Games but for soccer it’s huge to be in this country playing on this stage.”
Heath has long dazzled fans with her incisive passing and dynamic dribbling, which at times has included a nutmeg or two (in fact, her second touch as a member of the full WNT was a nutmeg), and she creates excitement on whichever flank she happens to be patrolling. Rare is the player who is equally effective from both wings, but the left-footed Heath is one of them. She has caused many a nightmare for opposing defenders with her combination of speed, fitness, soccer savvy and sublime skill.
With the Olympic tournaments being held in six cities across Brazil, a country that breathes and lives the game, Heath is in her element.
“Obviously Ronaldinho was a huge icon during the time that I was growing up and Nike Football had promoted him in the Jogo Bonito stories and I loved watching all of his videos,” Heath said. “I would go on YouTube and I would watch everything about him. You just could see his passion for football was huge because he always played with a smile on his face and did the craziest things on the field. Every time he got the ball you’d never know what he would do because he was so unpredictable. The way he played football was so cool and made me say, ‘that’s the way I want to play football.’ For me he was a huge inspiration and even today I follow him and think he’s the best ever.”
In the 2-0 win against New Zealand to open Olympic play on Aug. 3, Heath was a commanding presence in the midfield. In classic Heath fashion, she assisted on the USA’s first goal of the night, freezing several defenders with a nifty bit of skill before serving a perfect cross to Carli Lloyd for a head goal. It was Heath’s fifth assist of the year and her 120th appearance for the USA.
At only 28 years old, Heath is playing in her third Olympic Games and fifth major senior level world championship. Since making her debut with the National Team in 2008, her role and impact on the U.S. team has only increased. She has matured on and off the field as her creativity has become increasingly magnified and important and her game-clinching goal in the 2015 Women’s World Cup Final will go down as one of the most memorable in U.S. history.
Heath showcasing her talent on the ball during training
In 2008, Heath was the youngest player on the 2008 Olympics gold medal team, seeing action in three games off the bench. Eight years later, her dribbling and jaw-dropping moves continue to captivate viewers and lovers of the beautiful game, while her calming and veteran presence on the pitch is something head coach Jill Ellis values.
“Her individual play to break players down, her ability to combine with others, she just gives us such an attacking weapon,” said Ellis. “Her work rate is exceptional and I don’t think she gets enough credit for that. She’s a box-to-box wide player. She’s a threat with her passing game and individually. With Tobin, we get a player that’s been there before and can calm us down in the storm.”
Heath’s abilities have certainly earned her many fans in the USA and around the world, and even in the workrooms of EA Sports. Just last year, Heath became one of two women, Brazil’s Marta being the other, to receive five-star skill moves in the popular videogame FIFA 16, a trait that allows access to all skills moves available in the game. She was the only American player, man or woman, to earn that recognition.
Among some of the notable men that are five-star skillers? Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo, and Brazil’s Neymar and Pelé, who was born in the city of Três Corações in the state of Minas Gerais – about 180 miles from Belo Horizonte, home of the WNT’s first two Olympics group games.
A deep love for the game and a sincere appreciation for the Brazilian style of soccer make this trip a dream come true for Heath.
“Each Olympics is different for me,” Heath said. “But being here in Brazil, I think it’s very special to play as a football player, and it’s really cool to be somewhere that has inspired me so much as a kid. Not much compares to this experience.”