“I mostly felt sadness and anger. Some numbness.” These are not the first words you might think would fall to a player’s lips when discussing the best game of his life. But this is precisely what USA goalkeeper Tim Howard told FIFA.com about the day he made 16 saves against Belgium in the Round of 16 at the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™.
If he were a striker, his most memorable day at the office may not have ended in a 1-2 loss, and elimination from the world finals. But the life of a goalkeeper can be tragic. Sometimes the best game imaginable simply is not enough to swing the balance. In a performance that made him a bona fide hero back home, nearly broke the internet, and kept his side in a game in which, in all honesty, they were dramatically outplayed, Howard ended up cruelly on the losing side.
But no one who saw him that warm day in Salvador, diving and sprawling, making saves with his feet, his face and his hands, is likely to forget it any time soon. And while it remains a bittersweet memory for the colourful shot-stopper, he made history that day. His 16 saves over the course of 120 minutes of football is a record that will live long in the memory, and the history and lore of the World Cup finals.
Tim Howard was born on 6 March 1979 and showed great athletic skill early on as a midfielder and a basketball star, averaging 15 points a game when his school side won a state championship. A busy youngster, he made his first professional appearance as a goalkeeper while he was still in high school. After a handful of standout seasons in MLS with New York/New Jersey MetroStars (now New York Red Bulls), he was soon making a move that seemed impossible, hand-picked by Sir Alex Ferguson to replace Fabien Barthez as Manchester United’s No1. It was rarefied air for an American player and the opportunity of a lifetime for the young Howard, who was still just 24.
He had a brilliant first season at Old Trafford, but Howard soon learned the thin margins of the world’s biggest stages. He paid the price for a handful of mistakes and was on his way to Everton on loan in 2006. The move became permanent and he spent the next decade delighting the blue half of the city of Liverpool. He became a fan favourite at Goodison Park, where he fine-tuned his on-field personality. Lively, full of critiques and conversation with his defenders and opposing strikers alike, he stood out for his bushy beard, shaved head and swaths of tattoos on every inch of skin real estate. He was not just an outstanding keeper; Tim Howard had style as well.
And when the 2014 World Cup rolled around, he was at the height of his powers. He was 35 years old, twice a veteran of the finals and the most successful goalkeeper in US history, with 100 caps to his name. He had just set a record of 210 consecutive starts in the English Premier League and also notched his 100th career clean sheet for Everton, who finished above cross-town rivals Liverpool in sixth place. For his national team, he was a leader – the boss at the back.
The game against Belgium was not even 60 seconds old when Howard had to sprawl to his left and tip Divock Origi’s snap-shot wide of the far post with his toe. It looked like his USA were in for ‘one of those days’. But when he dusted himself off and raised a fist at his defenders, it signaled the start of something special.
This was not one of those soft, simple first saves that most goalkeepers admit to preferring. This was a warning sign of things to come, of an onslaught. The Belgians were loaded with attacking talent like Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku, and were even tipped as outsiders to take the World Cup crown. The Red Devils were not in Salvador for the weather.
The Americans, under then coach Jurgen Klinsmann, were pegged back, camped in their own end. They created precious few chances and Howard’s performance papered over serious deficiencies at the back and in midfield. While his save-count climbed, the internet began to take notice. The hashtag #ThingsTimHowardCouldSave began trending. The dinosaurs, the Titanic and Private Ryan were among a host of amusing suggestions. One inspired mischief-maker even went so far as to change Wikipedia’s American Secretary of Defence entry to, yes, you guessed it, Tim Howard.
His performance – that consisted of 12 saves with his trunk and hands, and four with his feet – kept the outplayed Americans in the game. And when the ball fell to substitute Chris Wondolowski in the six-yard box in the 92nd minute, the Stars and Stripes might have won the game, if only for a tidier finish. It was Howard’s performance that put them in the position to not lose by a lopsided scoreline, and nearly steal the result at the death.
But even Howard’s herculean exploits, that earned him Man of the Match honours, were not enough in the 30 minutes of extra time. Goals from De Bruyne and Lukaku (Howard’s team-mate at Everton) ended the contest. Julian Green pulled one back late to halve the deficit and we are left to only imagine what the American goalkeeper might have done in a penalty shoot-out, that was avoided thanks to a brilliant save at the other end by Thibaut Courtois on Clint Dempsey in the final seconds.
“We wanted to break out of the cage early in the group stages in Brazil. For so many months after the draw, we were totally focused on the opener with Ghana. And when it finally came, we were as prepared as we were going to be, and it showed (USA won 2-1).
“Everyone was calling our group the ‘Group of Death'. People were saying we didn’t have a chance of getting past Portugal, Ghana and Germany. But we did it. We proved a lot of people wrong, all those naysayers who like to take the negative road.
“The day of the Belgium game (Round of 16), I was nervous. I couldn’t have been more nervous. But as the game got going, I didn’t worry about how many saves I made. I was just trying to be ready for the next attack, to pick out the next shooter. To organise the defence. So all those balls that hit me - I had no idea. It was only after, when I was in drug testing, that someone mentioned it to me. 16? It made no sense because I didn't remember making that many saves.
“After the game, you've got all these emotions - anger, sadness. Disappointment more than anything, because you don't get opportunities like that every day, you know? You rarely get them every four years.
“Back home in the States, after the World Cup, I had this everlasting smile on my face because everywhere we went, we got congratulated. People from every walk of life. Old, young, men, women, it didn't matter. It seemed like the World Cup gripped everybody in the US, and for me, that was cool.”