This is why the game has the planet in thrall for one month every four years. This is why billions of television sets are switched on, why tens of thousands of people gather for outdoor viewing parties from Boston to Berlin to Bogota to Busan.
How many people in this country didn’t know that the United States men’s soccer team was playing Belgium in the World Cup on Tuesday afternoon? Anyone who didn’t know soon after the final whistle how close Uncle Sam’s nephews came to pulling off a comeback for the ages in Salvador?
The Americans’ unlikely but unforgettable run in Brazil came to an end with a 2-1 loss to the Red Devils in the second round, but they came agonizingly and admirably close to pushing the Belgians to a penalty-kick shootout, where a victory would have earned the US a quarterfinal date with Argentina. “I think they made their country proud with their performance,” said US coach Jurgen Klinsmann, who won the Cup in 1990 as a player for West Germany.
His team’s late resurrection after they’d fallen behind by two goals in overtime, and which was sparked by a shock strike in the 107th minute from unknown teenage substitute Julian Green, made for the most dramatic effort by a US men’s sports team on the global stage since the Boys of Winter upset the Soviet Union in Lake Placid in 1980. “For my heart, please don’t give me too many games like that,” pleaded Belgian coach and former player Marc Wilmots after his squad had reached the quarterfinals for the first time since 1986.
The hero-in-defeat was goalkeeper Tim Howard, who made an astounding 16 saves to keep his besieged mates in the match until they could mount a desperate surge in the closing moments. From the time he denied Divock Origi’s breakaway in the first minute, Howard was Horatius in sticky gloves, thwarting everything the frustrated Belgians could send in his direction.
“It’s my job,” shrugged the 35-year-old Howard, after the United States went out of the tournament as it did to Ghana four years ago — by a 2-1 count in overtime in the Round of 16. “It’s what I sign up to do. Hats off to the Belgians, but we gave a valiant effort.”
For most of the match the Red Devils had backed the Americans nearly all the way to the beach, firing a fusillade of shots that forced Howard to sprawl and scramble, his arms outstretched and legs akimbo. One goal, it seemed, would be enough. When it came from Kevin De Bruyne in the 93d minute, when Ghana also had scored its winner in 2010, the US quixotic quest seemed at an end.
And when Belgian top gun Romelu Lukaku, who’d entered at the start of the extra session, booted home another goal in the 105th, the Americans were all but interred. The West Germans had come from two goals down in overtime to bring down the French in the 1982 semifinals, but no other team had managed that in Cup play. So Klinsmann rolled the dice and used his final substitution to bring in the 19-year-old Green, who hadn’t played one second in the tournament but who was fresh and fearless.
Two minutes and one touch later, Green volleyed home the only goal the Belgians conceded from the run of play in the tournament and the first US score in 215 minutes. There still were 13 minutes on the clock, a lifetime for a US bunch that traditionally comes to life when time is running out. “Come on, come on,” Klinsmann shouted to his exhausted but energized players, urging them upfield for an all-out 10-man assault.
As white jerseys crowded into the Belgian area, Jermaine Jones, who’d scored the equalizer against Portugal, just missed. Then, with half a dozen minutes to go, there was Captain America, sniper Clint Dempsey, with the ball at his feet from a clever maneuver off a free kick, with a golden chance. But Belgian keeper Thibaut Courtois, who’d been lightly tested all afternoon, denied him.
Had the match gone to a shootout, few would have bet against the Yanks and Howard, the bald and bearded wonder who has played 104 matches in a US jersey. If Algerian referee Djamel Haimoudi had added a few more minutes of stoppage time, the US might have gotten there. When he gave only one, Klinsmann howled in disbelief.
The way Americans historically reckon it, they never lose. They simply run out of time. “It’s heartbreaking,” said Howard. “I don’t think we could have given any more. What a great game of football. We got beat by a really great team. It’s heartache. It hurts.”
What was different about this Cup exit, the third time since 1994 the US has missed the quarterfinals by a goal, is that everyone at home seemed to be cheering them on. “I believe,” President Obama declared when he turned up at the Executive Office Building to watch the second half.
When the tournament began three weeks ago, most people didn’t believe the Americans still would be pulling on a jersey yesterday. Yet they were playing when Spain and Italy and England were not and they played all the way to the end.
“The dream falls short,” said Howard as his teammates prepared to fly back across the equator and begin thinking about the road to 2018 and Russia. “But this is an incredible group — and we’ll never forget this night.”
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