'He's my Michael Jordan' -- How Tom Brady became the NFL's first true global icon

As the NFL's first global superstar, Tom Brady has extended the NFL's appeal to unexpected places. ESPN

Editor's note: Sources have told ESPN that Tom Brady is retiring from football after 22 seasons in which he won a historic seven Super Bowl titles. The following story on the quarterback's global impact was published Jan. 11, before the two-game postseason run of Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers run began.

It's been more than 20 years since Tom Brady launched an NFL career worthy of every award and acclaim imaginable. Along the way, he has also become the league's first global superstar. Like Babe Ruth and Michael Jordan before him, Brady has helped to elevate a sport that was mostly confined to North America and managed to spread its popularity to unexpected places.

Brady is the the first true ambassador of a league intent on global relevance. Trips to Brazil, Japan, Ghana and other spots have brought adoring fans from out of the woodwork. During a 2017 trip to China, throngs of photographers lined up to catch him tossing a football while standing on the Great Wall.

The fandom Brady has cultivated internationally is passionate and also a testament to the enormous impact one transcendental player has had on behalf of an entire sport. In recognition of this, we took a look at Brady's international history and, with help from ESPN journalists abroad, also spoke to fans around the world about the role he has played not only in their love of football but in their lives as well.

A common theme among these accounts? "GOAT" translates well in any language or culture.

Brazil: 'Gisele's husband' inspires doppelgangers

Already a popular figure among Brazil's budding community of football fans, Tom Brady became a cultural mainstay in the country when he married Brazilian model and activist Gisele Bundchen in 2009. In the early days of their marriage, Brazilian media would constantly refer to Brady almost exclusively as "Gisele's husband," rattling hardcore fans.

"He is the GOAT. Even if one day he goes to the Jets and leads them to the playoffs. I will follow him wherever he goes." Guilherme Lopes

It's become common to see Brady out and about at high-profile events in Brazil, such as Carnival. In 2018, Tom and Gisele took in one of Brazilian soccer's most intense rivalries, Gremio vs. Internacional.

Brady's exploding fame in Brazil has escalated to the point of inspiring a doppelganger contest. Last month, in its efforts to connect with more NFL fans in-season, ESPN Brazil launched a web series titled "Searching for Tom Brasa" (Brasa is slang for Brazilian in Portuguese), tasked with finding Brady's perfect lookalike.

"People tagged me on Instagram saying [I look like Tom Brady]," said winner Marcelo Taporosky, 31. "I ended up taking part in the auditions and I won, becoming the official double of the living legend here in Brazil."

Devotion to Brady is such that Brazilians were faced with choosing player over team after the quarterback left the New England Patriots for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the 2020 offseason.

"It took me a while to accept the fact that he was leaving," said Sidney Torres, who founded the NE Patriotas fan site for Brazilian fans of the six-time Super Bowl champion Pats. "I prepared myself a little psychologically for his departure; [then] when he announced it, I wouldn't be shocked. When I saw him passing to Rob Gronkowski [with the Bucs], it hit me."

For others, like 39-year-old Guilherme Lopes, loyalty to Brady remains most important -- regardless of his uniform. "Wherever he goes, I will follow him. I'm his fan forever. He is the GOAT," Lopes said. "Even if one day he goes to the Jets and leads them to the playoffs. I will follow him wherever he goes." -- Gustavo Faldon

UK: Saving Brady for a rainy day

Phil Jones, from Derbyshire, England, remembers filtering through a clearance box at Super Bowl XXXV in early 2001. An avid collector, he watched the previous year's Orange Bowl from a hotel room as Tom Brady capped his college career at Michigan by throwing four touchdowns in a spectacular win over Alabama and took a liking to the quarterback.

Jones, 66, can recall seeing the infamous NFL combine video of a shirtless Brady on a scale.

"I remember thinking 'How did he beat Alabama?'" Jones said.

A few months later, he even checked to see where Brady was drafted, then took him in the last round of his fantasy team that year.

So, when he came across four Brady rookie cards at a memorabilia event in the lead-up to Super Bowl XXXV, he asked what the seller wanted for them. The sixth-round rookie did not command much of a price, so Jones bought the cards for $6.

Included in the collection is an ungraded, non-numbered 2000 Playoff Contenders Tom Brady RC rookie card that appears to be autographed. A similar card fetched close to $50,000 online in October, but high returns for cards that aren't graded or numbered are an anomaly.

"Tom Brady is my pension," Jones joked.

Jones is perhaps one of the biggest NFL fans in the U.K. He is the joint-president of the BucsUK fan group, which he first joined in 1990, and has been to 12 Super Bowls -- his first was in 1991; Super Bowl XXXV was his ninth. He even went to Brady's first in 2002, a year after he bought the rookie collectibles, and sat behind the goalposts as Adam Vinatieri kicked the winning field goal for the Patriots.

Since, Jones has kept stock of Brady's career, as if that was difficult to do. He watched as Brady won six more Super Bowl titles, including the one last year for his Buccaneers.

"I never rooted for the Patriots. I rooted for Brady," Jones said.

Jones stores the rookie cards in a local bank vault, along with his will and his most cherished and valuable assets. He has little intention of selling them -- he has had offers -- but he doesn't need the money. Jones owns and manages his own textile business, and works shifts as a milkman to stay in shape. The cards are an asset that could one day be handed down to his two adult children, or even act as a rainy day fund.

"I really have no idea what I will do with them," he said. "They're my memories." -- Connor O'Halloran

Mexico: A give-and-take relationship

The Raiders, Dallas Cowboys and Pittsburgh Steelers had long been the most popular NFL franchises among Mexico's 48 million football fans, according to the league. During 2019, Brady's last season with the Patriots, a poll revealed New England to be the most followed team in the country.

Brady has won all three of his appearances in the NFL International Series, which included a 2017 stop in Mexico City. When the three-time NFL MVP and the Patriots beat the then-Oakland Raiders at Estadio Azteca, fans chanted his name throughout the entire game.

"That was very much a surprise," Brady told reporters after the game.

However, one of the most bizarre moments in his career also has ties to fans in the country. At Super Bowl LI in 2017, Mexican journalist Martin Mauricio Ortega stole the jersey Brady had worn during the the Patriots' historic comeback win over the Atlanta Falcons.

Ortega, who gained access to the locker room at Houston's NRG Stadium with a credential for Mexican newspaper La Prensa, later described his actions as "an impulse from an uncontrolled fan." -- Eric Gomez

Denmark: Move to Bucs tears 'biggest fan' apart

When Tom Brady signed with the Buccaneers on March 20, 2020, his self-proclaimed "biggest fan" in Europe did not take the news lightly.

Kenneth Jorgensen, a 39-year-old factory worker from Esbjerg, Denmark, suddenly felt his loyalty split between Brady and Brady's former team. He called in sick for three days straight, as the anguish over Brady's free-agency decision caused Jorgensen to mourn the end of an era.

"The day I first watched Tom play live [in London, during the 2009 season], I felt like a kid on Christmas morning. He's the GOAT. He's my Michael Jordan," said Jorgensen, who became a Patriots fan in 1997, before Brady joined the team.

Jorgensen's fandom has inspired him to attend 16 Patriots games -- all New England victories, he says. During his multiple pilgrimages to watch the Patriots, either in England or at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts, the highlight of all highlights was watching No. 12 in person.

"I can't describe what it's like to see Brady do his thing," Jorgensen said. "It just takes your breath away."

Jorgensen's trips have prompted brushes with some of the franchise's most important figures. On his Instagram profile, Jorgensen posted a picture with his arm around team owner Robert Kraft. In March, he said he was moved to tears when he received a signed letter from Patriots coach Bill Belichick in the mail.

His home in Esbjerg more closely resembles a shrine to the Patriots in which many items bear Brady's likeness.

Ultimately, Jorgensen chose team over superstar. He admits he still wishes Brady well -- except when he's playing against New England. When the Bucs eked out a 19-17 victory over the Pats last October, Jorgensen bore no ill will toward his former QB -- indicating significant progress in comparison to when he watched Brady lead his new team to a Super Bowl last year.

"Watching him hoist the Lombardi Trophy with the Bucs was like getting kicked in the head," Jorgensen said. -- Eric Gomez

Australia: Kidney stones and revelry

Few international fans of Tom Brady make the pilgrimage to witness him in action quite like those from Australia. That's 21 hours at best from pillar to post, with a quick transfer at LAX if you're lucky, for the chance to see the most widely known NFL star on the planet throw darting spirals.

Australian football voyagers tell stories of detours from family vacations, hauling solo across the continent with nothing but jeans and a hoodie to brave the freezing Northeast winter. Broken down trains, flight cancellations and the brownie points needed to make up the difference on return all worth it.

For Sam Williams, even a kidney stone emergency upon arrival to the U.S. in 2016 wasn't going to stop his march to Foxborough to watch Jets-Patriots. Williams said he developed the stone on his first night in the states, Dec. 22, with the game scheduled for two days later.

"Paramedics were called to the hotel at around 3 a.m., and I ended up spending six hours in the E.R. at Tufts Medical Center. "But I was never going to miss it, I'd waited too long not to see the Patriots and Brady live," Williams said. "I went to the game on hydrocodone to ease the pain, which started to wear off by the fourth quarter."

By that point, the Patriots were well on their way to a 41-3 win -- serving perhaps as an ultimate analgesic for Williams.

"So glad we thumped the Jets."

Australian fans also have a habit of making the most of the opportunity when they arrive. That, and finding good drinking buddies for the day.

Jaymz Clements discovered all that and more on a last-ditch trip to Gillette Stadium in October 2018. Making it on time for the lone, beer-filled train from Boston to Foxborough, he recalls the day starting with a fellow passenger offering to add a morning kick to his coffee as the revelry started on the platform.

"The train ride took the better part of an hour, and I loved every second of it. Even the off-pale lad in a too-big Gronk shirt who looked like he was going to be sick every 3-4 minutes," Clements said. "But the best part was walking through the sprawling carpark tailgate. I was offered more free beers than at any point in my life, and became best friends with about 20 locals."

Some more new mates and a 38-7 demolition of the Dolphins later, another Aussie departed Gillette having seen the promised land to glimpse the dynasty.

"I had to see Brady in person one more time, in an actual game, because, unless you're a goat farmer, or Scottie Pippen, how often can you say you've seen the GOAT in person?" Clements said. -- Laurence Horesh

Bolivia: Spreading the love

Growing up in La Paz, Bolivia -- where soccer reigns supreme -- Daniel Nemtala's exposure to American football came mostly from video games and Hollywood movies.

"One of my favorite movies growing up was 'The Replacements,' with Keanu Reeves," said Nemtala, a 31-year-old producer for a sports TV network in Bolivia. "I played the Madden games on my PlayStation, and that's how I learned the game."

However, a trip to the Boston area to visit family members created a bond that lasts to this day.

"Every Sunday, no matter what, my family would get together to watch Tom Brady play. Those are some of the best memories I have in my entire life." Daniel Nemtala

"Tom Brady is a demigod to my family," Nemtala said. "Ever since I arrived there, Tom Brady was everywhere. He's all that people would talk about, especially during football season."

That adoration eventually caught Nemtala, who considers himself a die-hard Patriots fan while still rooting for Brady in Tampa Bay.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Nemtala would make yearly treks to Waltham, Massachusetts, to visit family and friends and share in his love for Brady and the Patriots. To this day, the visits remain treasured moments.

"Every Sunday, no matter what, my family would get together to watch Tom Brady play. Those are some of the best memories I have in my entire life," Nemtala said.

Nemtala has used his platform within the sports media industry to try to spread his love of the NFL -- as well as other American pro leagues -- to others in Bolivia. Those efforts are slowly blossoming, as Bolivia gains new NFL fans every season with growing exposure to the game.

"It used to be just people here who lived in the United States who liked football," Nemtala said. "But now more people want to watch the Super Bowl and follow specific teams and players."

Nemtala has plans to return to New England once pandemic challenges subside. However, he admits talking Brady to his family members might be a trickier subject than before.

"One of my cousins absolutely hates him now," Nemtala said. "Me? I think Brady's a genius, and I have great respect for him. I don't care what team he plays for, he'll always be the best to ever do it." -- Eric Gomez

ESPN reporter Dan Hajducky contributed to this report.