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World Cup draws Kobe Bryant to South Africa

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JOHANNESBURG — On his first trip to Africa, basketball star Kobe Bryant looked very much at home Sunday — bantering with teen athletes in Soweto, using his trilingual skills with the World Cup press corps, and displaying a keen knowledge of international football.

Bryant, fresh off an NBA championship with the Los Angeles Lakers, grew up playing football as a boy in Italy and has never lost his affection for the game.

His favorite player? Didier Drobga, the powerful forward of now-eliminated Ivory Coast.

The team he admires? Brazil, which he hopes to watch against Chile on Monday.

"They have so much individual talent, but they play as a unit," he said. "That’s beautiful to watch."

And his choice to win the World Cup? So far, so good. Bryant said he’d picked Germany — a 4-1 victor over England on Sunday — before the tournament.

Bryant arrived in South Africa on Saturday, and attended the second-round match that evening in which Ghana eliminated the United States, 2-1.

"I’m proud of our guys," Bryant said. "We had opportunities last night. We didn’t capitalize on them. Ghana did."

He said the U.S. team, with its gritty performances in the first round, had kindled an unprecedented degree of public interest in football among Americans.

"I want to see the sport take off in America," he said. "It’s a beautiful game and I think this is the first time it has really captured the imagination of the U.S. from a men’s perspective."

Bryant came to Soweto, the vast black township on the outskirts of Johannesburg, to visit a state-of-the-art football training center recently opened by sports footwear and apparel maker Nike Inc., one of the companies he endorses.

The Q-and-A sessions with the young players and the large media contingent gave Bryant a chance to show his love for football — dating back to his Italian days, when his father played pro basketball.

"As a kid, I had dreams of being a soccer player," said Bryant. "One day I was Van Basten, another day Maradona, another day I was Baggio."

Bryant was a longtime AC Milan supporter, but said he backs Barcelona. He speculates that, with his long arms, "I’d do OK" as a goalkeeper.

He’s an admirer and friend of several top football players, and evoked a budding rivalry by comparing Brazil’s overall World Cup titles with his own career NBA championships.

"If they win the World Cup, they will have six," he said. "If we win next year, we’ll have six. We’ll have something in common."

Bryant’s language skills were impressive — he needed no translator to field questions in Italian and Spanish.

One reporter asked who Bryant favored in Tuesday’s Spain-Portugal match.

"Spain — because of Pau," Bryant quickly answered, citing his friendship with his Spanish teammate on the Lakers, Pau Gasol.

In between the questions, Bryant joined many of the young football players at the training center for a session of stretching exercises and then huddled with one group of about a dozen, learning some of their cheers and chants.

The Nike complex includes two full-size fields with artificial turf, two grass fields for training, a gym, a physiotherapy facility, and a players lounge with audiovisual equipment. Nike hopes the center will serve about 20,000 young people a year.

"Growing up, if I had a place like this, I’d go crazy," Bryant told the young players. "I’d be here all day, every day."

In addition to football training, the center offers HIV-AIDS education, counseling and testing — part of an effort to combat that disease in the country with the world’s largest HIV-positive population.

Several of the young athletes were able to ask Bryant questions. His answers were basic, along the lines of "Follow your heart, follow your dreams."

Yet his competitive nature showed through.

"You have to win," he told one teen. "If you don’t incorporate what you do to help your team win, it means nothing."

Who’s the best player in the NBA, he was asked. Answer: "You’re looking at one of them."

One girl asked if Bryant would tie a red ribbon around her wrist. With a grin, he obliged.

Nike is not an official World Cup sponsor, but has nonetheless engaged in a spirited marketing campaign linked to the tournament — challenging its archrival Adidas, which is an official sponsor.

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