How the boy they called ‘Figo’ became Captain America

How the boy they called ‘Figo’ became Captain America - Patrick Smith - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images
How the boy they called ‘Figo’ became Captain America - Patrick Smith - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images

It was never difficult to spot Christian Pulisic during a match when he was a youngster. Playing with and against boys who were two years older, he was always at least a foot shorter than everyone else.

But that never seemed to matter.

Aged 11, in the closing stages of a cup game, his team, Pennsylvania Classics was awarded a penalty. While the teenagers looked around nervously at who would take the kick, the smallest player on the pitch walked over to the ball, picked it up, put it on the spot, stepped back, looked at the keeper and side footed it into the top right corner.

Twelve years later he had to make another penalty. This time playing for – and captaining – the USA against Mexico in front of 38,000 people in Denver, Colorado in the final of the Concacaf Nations League. It was extra time. Now 5ft8in but still one of the smallest players on the pitch, he walked over to the ball, picked it up, put it on the spot, stepped back, looked at the keeper and side footed it into the top right corner.

“He has always been fearless,” said Doug Harris, the Pennsylvania Classics President, and family friend.

Now, the 24-year-old will lead out the youngest squad at the World Cup in Qatar, with genuine hope of qualifying from a group that features England, Wales and Iran.

In a short space of time, the boy from Hershey has become ‘Captain America.’

Messi, Ronaldo... Pulisic

Christian Pulisic of United States controls the ball during the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Group B match between USA and Wales at Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium on November 21, 2022 in Doha, Qatar - Michael Steele/Getty Images
Christian Pulisic of United States controls the ball during the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Group B match between USA and Wales at Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium on November 21, 2022 in Doha, Qatar - Michael Steele/Getty Images

With US fans dazzled by his stunning early impact at Dortmund, £58 million move to Chelsea, £150,000-a-week contract and shiny Champions League trophy, Pulisic has transformed into a genuine superstar on the other side of the Atlantic. Even LeBron James wears his jersey.

Fox, which is broadcasting the tournament in America, has four players in its advert: Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar and Pulisic.

He has endorsement deals with Puma, Gatorade, Volkswagen, Michelob Ultra, Panini America, Chipotle, EA Sports and Bose. He’s on the cover of this month’s Sports Illustrated, and inside GQ magazine, photographed wearing a $3,250 Louis Vuitton jacket, with grooming by Dior Beauty.

“I’ve played in some big games. I’ve accomplished a lot. I’ve done a lot of things I want to do. But the World Cup is something on top of all of that,” he said in a press conference in Qatar.

“When I was a kid in Pennsylvania growing up, 5 to 10 years old, all I thought about was playing for the US team in a World Cup. That’s just been a dream my whole life.”

That dream started 7,000 miles away from Doha.

‘This kid is really tiny’

Christian Pulisic is not Hershey’s first world-famous export. It has, since 1894 been best known for its eponymous chocolate, and the whole town of just 15,000 people is built around the Hershey brand, which of course, he represents too.

Christian Pulisic playing for Pennsylvania Classics aged around 10 - Doug Harris
Christian Pulisic playing for Pennsylvania Classics aged around 10 - Doug Harris

There’s the ‘Melt Spa,’ ‘Story of Hershey Museum’ and an enormous theme park. Even the streetlights are designed to look like the silver-foil Hershey’s kisses chocolates.

Pulisic was born at the Milton S. Hershey hospital, just off Chocolate Avenue. Today, he still has a weakness for Reese’s peanut butter cups.

It seems an improbable place to raise a sporting superstar, but much credit is given to his father Mark and mother Kelley, who both played football at George Mason University, in Virginia.

By the age of three, their son could kick the ball with both feet. Aged seven, he won his first trophy, during a short stint in England, for Brackley Town Under-8s in Northamptonshire. At 10, and with the nickname ‘Figo,’ he was ready to play properly. But there were conditions.

Christian Pulisic aged 7 playing for Brackley Town in England - Doug Harris
Christian Pulisic aged 7 playing for Brackley Town in England - Doug Harris

“Mark clearly understood there was something special about his son, so he wanted him to be challenged,” said Harris, from Pennsylvania Classics.

“The deal was that if he was going to play in the academy, he’d play two years up.

“My earliest impression was ‘this kid is really tiny,’ but Christian showed straight away that he could handle playing up with kids that were literally a foot taller than he was.

“He clearly brought with him this unbelievable technicality and Christian worked harder than anybody that I have seen come through our club. His parents never had to push him. He would be out kicking a ball all evening until his mum had to drag him in for dinner.”

A move to Dortmund at 16 was sealed after a canny decision to apply for an EU passport. Pulisic was eligible thanks to his Croatian-born grandfather, and at 17 he became the youngest starter and scorer for Dortmund in the Champions League.

A hometown hero

Pulisic still has a huge affinity for his hometown. During the pandemic, he teamed up with Mexican food chain Chipotle to provide free meals for nurses and doctors working at the hospital where he was born.

Last year, he returned to Pennsylvania Classics and opened the ‘Pulisic Stomping Grounds’ - a series of training pitches created specifically for technical development and small sided games, which he helped design and pay for.

Doug Harris at the Pulisic Stomping Grounds, which the Chelsea player helped design and pay for - Doug Harris
Doug Harris at the Pulisic Stomping Grounds, which the Chelsea player helped design and pay for - Doug Harris

“It was always something that I wanted to do,” Pulisic said at the ribbon cutting ceremony.

Afterwards, still with a warm glow after posing for hundreds of pictures, he said: “I never could have imagined Classics kids looking at me like that. Just coming back and watching these clinics and seeing kids with my jersey on their back, it’s special to me.”

In 2010, he was one of those kids, watching the World Cup in his basement, dressed in full team kit and cheering wildly as Landon Donovan scored a last minute winner against Algeria to ensure the USA topped a group which featured England.

Now, the team is built around him.

Singing Miley Cyrus

“‘Get the ball to Christian' is a simplified but not far-fetched way to describe the USA's offensive approach,” Mike Woitalla, executive editor of Soccer America, a US football news site, told Telegraph Sport.

“His captaincy comes from the respect his teammates have for his accomplishments in Europe. He's not so much a team general who gives orders or serves as an extension of the coach, rather he is an inspirer thanks to unrelenting competitiveness.”

On Friday, Pulisic will be up against familiar faces from Chelsea. He has settled into the club well, becoming particularly close with Mason Mount and Ben Chilwell, who through injury, is not at the World Cup. He still likes to define himself as American, though. His initiation song was ‘Party in the USA,’ by Miley Cyrus.

A party in the USA is exactly what Pulisic is hoping for.

“We’re not at The World Cup just to make up the numbers,” he said in Qatar.

“We go, we give it everything in every game we play, we make America proud. Wherever that takes us we have to wait and see. We want to change the way that the world sees American soccer.”