Just as goals galore have defined this World Cup in Brazil, so too have the men whose job it is to stifle and stop those goals. In many ways, this has been the tournament of the goalkeeper, and on Tuesday night in Salvador, Tim Howard put in a performance that the word “heroic” doesn’t suitably describe. It was lion-hearted.
One might be tempted to say, also, that Howard’s display was in vain, but that would be to misunderstand the essence of the World Cup. He and his teammates lost 2-1, all three goals coming in an epic extra time, but they trooped off the field and exited the tournament with the ungrudging respect of the Belgians against whom they played.
Howard made 17 saves in the course of the game, six of which were, by my estimation, spectacular; six saves that would not have come from a lesser keeper. If the game went into extra time with both teams locked goalless, it was entirely due to Howard. But there is only so much one man can do.
For much of the game, one felt one was watching a medieval siege of a fortress: The U.S. was camped in front of its own goal, Howard the chieftain in charge; the Belgians besieged, swarmed, shot—threw everything they had at the fortress. One could picture catapults and trebuchets, battering rams and siege towers. But they simply couldn’t break down the gates.
If Howard was impenetrable, the Belgians were profligate. They wasted chance after chance, first Eden Hazard…then Marouane Fellaini…then Divock Origi, their 19-year-old wunderkind of Kenyan origin. (Has there ever been a better Kenyan football player? I think not.)
For most of the game it was one American against the Belgian hordes. Take this sequence: In the 72nd minute, Howard saved an Origi shot with his legs; in the 76th he blocked a near-certain goal-shot by Kevin Mirallas; in the 79th, he kept Hazard at bay again; in the 85th, Origi once more; and in the 90th, Vincent Kompany, with perhaps the Belgian miss of the match. Five clear chances in 18 minutes, 18 minutes that could have seen the score mount to 5-0. Howard’s gallantry surpassed that of Guillermo Ochoa, the Mexican goalkeeper, against Brazil, and Manuel Neuer against Algeria, the German’s performance all the more remarkable as it saved his side from defeat against a vastly lower-ranked team.
In extra time, Marc Wilmots, the Belgian coach, subbed out Origi and brought on Romelu Lukaku, his first-choice striker who has been in poor touch. Lukaku—a bull of a man who at 21 is shaping up to be a player of lasting potency—made an immediate, deadly impact. In the second minute, he muscled the ball off Matt Besler, scorched his way deep into the U.S. half, and laid it on to Kevin De Bruyne. The latter had had a lovely if fruitless game, running rings around the U.S. defense but failing, repeatedly, to score. This time, however, he found his mark, slotting the ball in—low and cruel—to Howard’s right. Thirteen minutes later, Lukaku stormed away with a goal of his own, and with the score at 2-0 with about nine minutes to go, one felt that Belgium would run away with a late burst of goals.
But faced with elimination, Team USA found some very late fire, raiding the Belgians repeatedly and even scoring once: Julian Green, the team’s baby at just 19 years of age, came on as a sub and scored with his very first touch. With about two minutes left on the clock, Clint Dempsey almost stole a miraculous equalizer off a set-piece only 25 feet from the Belgian goal; but Thibaut Courtois, the ’keeper, effected what was the save of the match. The irony was delicious: A man who had had almost nothing to do all night denied the Americans a goal with a priceless piece of ’keeping.
In the end, talent and technique got the better of ardor and audacity. Man for man, the Belgians were a much better side. They are classy, and lovely to watch. For long spells, Team USA made the same mistake they made against the Germans in their last group match: They played the reputation, not the team. But for one last game, Howard and his brave band of men showed us why they are among the best-loved in world soccer: They played with heart—pure heart—and they played the game in the fairest spirit. They were gentlemen and ambassadors. And they were gallant—very, very gallant.