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Tim Howard’s South Africa Diary

Courtesy of FoxSoccer…

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Tim Howard’s South Africa Diary

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The World Cup has been everything I expected, and more.

I’ve been so incredibly impressed with the way South Africa has rallied together. When I’ve come here the past couple of years I’ve done the things you come here to do. I’ve done the safaris, I went to Soweto, and I‘ve done all the sightseeing things, but to really see all the African people embrace the World Cup, it’s been a really cool experience. To see what this means to them is something else. It’s corporate in a lot of ways, but it’s also about the heart of the people and their passion for soccer.

Tim Howard reflects on his time in South Africa.

From an off-the-field standpoint, the place where we’re staying, the morale, the guys, the group, it has been one hundred percent perfect. We’re enjoying ourselves. It’s been a long time being away, but with all the games on, and all of us huddled around the TV watching all the games, we’ve had a chance to really bond.

It’s different from (the 2006 World Cup at) Germany in the sense that, logistically speaking, the hotels and the families and where they’re all staying is different, and we’re on our own. It’s not like staying in the downtown city center (in Hamburg), where you can just put your sunglasses on, walk out and go shopping. It’s more of a training camp mentality. We’re here, bunkered in, we enjoy our meals and enjoy our training, and to a certain extent, for better of worse, we’re a lot more focused. There’s not a lot of external things going on. There’s a lot fewer distractions. The guys are playing FIFA, a few of the boys are out and fishing in the lake, there are poker games, we’re watching a lot of the games. Our schedule is pretty straightforward. It’s broken up pretty well because we’ve got a workout session in the morning, then lunch, then we rest. After that we’ve got training in the afternoon. There’s downtime, but there’s enough to keep us active.

This team, with the additions that were made just prior to the World Cup, is probably one of the better teams I’ve been on in terms of no egos, really good guys, guys who are eager and hungry and ready to work. All the really good things you can say about guys on the team has been that way.

It’s a very young group, but sometimes with that it can go either way. They see it as their chance to shine, they internalize it, they get greedy and start acting a certain way and take it as a negative thing. We haven’t had that with this group. The younger guys who have come into this group have been gung ho for this team and do anything they can. Not just on the field, but off the field, and it’s been awesome.

I’ve watched quite a few World Cup games, just like everybody else. I’ve been pulling particularly for the Everton guys in the group. Holland, Nigeria, South Africa and Australia are really the ones I’ve been focused on, but I’ve watched every game and it’s been a pretty incredible World Cup because you just don’t know who’s going to win each game.

One of the toughest moments was seeing Tim Cahill get a red card. I was devastated for him. I spoke to him afterward. He was

Cahill sees red in the Socceroos' opener with Germany.

beside himself, couldn’t figure out why or how he got the red. He’s someone I’ve grown close with and we’ve talked about this for years, and throughout the build-up, so I know what it meant to him so it was tough.

Looking back at the England game, we really felt good about what we could accomplish in that game. Beforehand, guys weren’t scared. Guys weren’t nervous, they were ready for it. We fought back from a goal down and played a good game against a very good team in a game I know people had been waiting months to see.

What a lot of people remember about that game is my injury. I didn’t know what the next day would bring, but I was going to give myself every shot to play against Slovenia. When I spoke to the trainers, they told me when it’s a rib injury it’s something you’re going to feel for a few weeks, so once I knew that it was about figuring out how to manage it.

The next morning was crazy. I kept trying to roll over in the middle of the night and it was nearly impossible. I had to stay on my left side. It wasn’t a surprise. I knew it was going to be bad but you deal with it. I was definitely in pain, but I just tried to take as many pain meds as I could to deal with it. It wasn’t the first time this season where I had to deal with something like that. With Everton late in the year, I had a back injury late in the year that had me thinking for the first time in a long time that I might have to come out of the game. It rocked me so bad that I was literally laid flat on my back in bed the next morning and I called from my phone on the night stand and told the team I couldn’t physically make it to practice. Walking down the stairs, walking to the stairs – it was a joke. I was dragging my feet. It was terrible. I couldn’t stand up straight. I was struggling. But I still played the next game because I don’t like missing games.

It was a special game, and for me, it was my first World Cup game. I try not to let my mind wander in those moments, like during the national anthem, but it’s hard not to when you’re playing in your first World Cup and the anthem comes on. I just tried not getting caught up in it, but there were a few moments like that.

We went into the Slovenia game with a lot of confidence, but to go down early the way we did was tough. In the second half, instinct took over. Our backs were literally against the wall. We were 45 minutes from our World Cup basically being over. The way we responded was great, and it gives us a lot of confidence going into the Algeria match.

The muggings at Ellis Park Stadium.

At this level, when you go down in any game 2-0, and you get back to level, you have to feel fortunate. We would love to win, and we would have loved for that (third) goal to stand in order to assure ourselves of a spot in the second round. The other side of that is that we were down two goals and we came back, we‘re still fighting and we still have a chance, so we have to keep it in perspective.

As far as the call on Maurice Edu’s goal, initially we were upset by it because it’s natural to be emotional after the game, but very quickly we re-focused on and had to put it behind us. I certainly understand it from a fans perspective that it’s not something you’re going to forget easily. We realize that we still have it all to play for, and if we win on Wednesday, we’ll qualify.

The crowd was great for the Slovenia match. I’ve played 50-something times for the (United States) and not once do I remember a whole, entire national anthem sung by the whole crowd. When they played the anthem and we were singing, it was being sung back at us, and it was a pretty incredible moment.

We’ve been in games where we’ve needed to win the game and it’s been a big game and big occasion. All we need is that win, just like last year (against Egypt in the Confederations Cup). The Egypt game is in recent memory, but you can go back to the Gold Cup final in 2007, that was a must-win, and the Confederations Cup semifinal was also a must-win. We’ve got that experience and it can only help us.

The experience at this World Cup has been even more special because my parents and brother have been here to enjoy it and experience it with me. When it comes to youth soccer in America, families have to give up a lot. Most other siblings have to sacrifice because you’re driving around to tournaments all over the country. Moms and dads have to sacrifice and drop everything they’re doing on the weekends. That’s how you spend most of your weekends for a good part of your youth. On the road, in hotels, playing in youth soccer tournaments, so it’s really special to have them all come and enjoy this experience and kind of be in the ultimate and the pinnacle of the sport. From all those days traveling around New Jersey, and up and down the East Coast, to youth soccer tournaments. It almost feels like it all paid off.

– Tim Howard



Come On-a Bafana!

The opening match may not have produced a winner, but did produce quite a good show.  The likes of Steven Pienaar and

Tshabalala celebrates his stunner.

Giovanni Dos Santos both looked good on the ball, while Siphiwe Tshabalala scored a beauty of a goal to put the hosts in front, but Rafael Marquez pulled Los Tricolores back level 24 minutes later after some poor defending from South Africa.

Despite believing they went ahead through a Carlos Vela strike in the 39th minute, Mexico continued to push for the large majority of the first half, however, after the break the Bafana Bafana showed a surprising awareness on the ball and great passing build up play.  If they can keep that kind of magic throughout an entire match and bring it with them into every match, they could really do some damage, not only in Group A, but (I daresay) that later rounds.

It’s a longshot, sure, but South Africa really had some promising moments.

Vela nets what he thought was the opener for South Africa 2010.

From the starting whistle, there were some glaring deficiencies from the hosts that needed serious addressing.  Mexico picked them apart with the greatest of ease, and it was feared that we were in for a long match.  However, once nerves settled and South Africa actually got some possession on the ball, play opened up considerably.

South Africa will feel unlucky that Stephen Mphela didn’t put them ahead in the latter stages of the game after he mis-struck the ball and hit the post.

However, Mexico were not without their share of chances.  Giovanni Dos Santos sent a rasping effort at the upper 90 in the first half, only to be denied by Itumeleng Khune, who proved himself well up to the task of guarding the goalmouth.  He expertly saved Guillermo Franco’s effort point blank in the first half as well.



Set Your DVR For…Pt. 1

Group A –

– South Africa vs. Mexico –

The young Mexican will open up defenses in Group A.

Yep, the opening game.  It will be the first test for both sides hoping to make it out of one of the more exciting groups.  Recently marred by the Benni McCarthy scandal, the nation will be eager to get behind their boys and cheer the Bafana Bafana to victory. However, they are coming up against a battle ready Mexican side featuring the likes of Andrés Guardado, Giovanni Dos Santos, and Cuauhtémoc Blanco.  But, it is important to stress the effects that homefield advantage can have on a squad (cue 2002 South Korea).  Whatever happens in Group A, it should amount to some fireworks.

Prediction

South Africa 1 – 2 Mexico

– France vs. Mexico –

To say France has drastically underachieved in qualifying could be putting it lightly.  Les Bleus have one of the strongest rosters in the world, but have failed to live up to that potential.  Forever famous for his handball (the Hand of Gaul), Thierry Henry, the French’s leading scorer, will look to net early and often against a Mexican side that isn’t without its flaws.  Rafael Marquez has only just returned from injury and could be prime for a runaround, a fact that Franck Ribery knows assuredly, as well.  One of the only consistent performers for the French, and only recently, is goalkeeper Hugo Lloris.  The youngster has been in superb form for Lyon and will more than likely attract the attention of big European clubs in South Africa.

Snugglin'

Prediction

France 1 – 1 Mexico

Group B

– Argentina vs. Nigeria –

Most likely the most anticipated match-up of Group B, as the attacking flair of the Africans and the unrivaled talent in the striking

department of the Argentines should provide fireworks.  The Nigerian defense isn’t half bad either.  With the likes of Joseph Yobo, Danny Shittu and Taye Taiwo, they won’t be push overs.  However, when you consider the opposition of Messi, Tevez, Aguero, Milito and Higuain up front, it’s hard to be confident.  Expect a high scoring match with little being offered by either team to defensive standoffs.

Prediction

Argentina 4 – 2 Nigeria

Group C

England vs. United States –

There is a lot of buzz surrounding this match, as the two nations have an illustrious history.  Wartime foes and allies, fierce

So much Wayne. So much angst.

rivalries in sports (Ryder Cup anyone?) and the constant claim that the Americans will never be up to snuff in the footballing world.  And with a squad like England’s, it’s hard to argue…at least this time around.  Despite losing Rio Ferdinand and Gareth Barry (for the opener only), England still has plenty of bite.  Their pacy wingers will be eyeing up the slower Yank defense and licking their lips.  However, the Americans prosper as underdogs and have proved it before against Spain, Italy and nearly Brazil.  They also do have a few game changing players in their ranks in the likes of Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore.  Michael Bradley will surprise some critics at this World Cup for his stifling defensive work but will have his hands full with Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard…especially if Ricardo Clark starts and keeps being useless.

Prediction

England 2 – 2 United States

Group D

….All.  The Germans look favorites to top the group, who could blame them?  They are historically dominant and just legit all the time.  Without Ballack, there will be a big hole in midfield that some undersized plugs will try to fill, but the Germans will still manage to oust this group.  The Ghanians will obviously be missing their star man, Michael Essien, but there is still hope as Asamoah Gyan will be a viable option up top and Sulley Muntari and Stephen Appiah will look to anchor down the middle of the park.  The big physical play of the Serbs could see them through this group as they have sufficient talent all over the pitch, namely defense. Aleksander Kolorov, Branislav Ivanovic, Neven Subotic and Nemanja Vidic…enough said.  They won’t allow many goals and won’t be devoid of goal scoring options up top.  The Australians might be the underdogs of this group, but not by too much.  Their defensive work, like the Serbs, could make up for any menace they lack going forward.  Brett Emerton, Lucas Neill and keeper Mark Shwarzer will be up to the task to snuffing out more than enough attacks.  The question is: can they hold off enough of them to get forward themselves to score?  We don’t think so.

Prediction

Germany to take top spot, with Serbia and Ghana slugging it out for second.  Slight edge Serbia.

Group E

Cameroon vs. Denmark

Simon Kjaer will be entrusted with stifling Samuel Eto'o

The two would-be runner up contenders will contend what we believe to be an intense contest.  This is backed up by a little guycalled Christian Poulsen.  He’s explosive, he provokes players and he’s violent.  After run ins with Francesco Totti, Gennaro Gattuso and Kaká, Poulsen has made a name for himself as a bit of a dirty player.  That coupled with the intensity sure to be building up within the Cameroonian midfield could lead to a show.  Don’t put it past Poulsen to make a racial slur, provoke one of the Lions.  That said, Cameroon have an iconic hitman in Samuel Eto’o, however that may be slightly scuppered by the big Danes, Daniel Agger and Simon Kjaer.  Cameroon are also dealing with internal team issues with Samuel Eto’o being called out by legend Roger Milla, essentially for being a baby.  Denmark will look to snuff out attacks with their big boys in back and counter through their young gun Nikolas Bendtner.

Prediction

Cameroon 1 – 0 Denmark



Up for Grabs for Group A

GROUP A –

1. South Africa

2. Mexico

3. Uruguay

4. France

Group A could be one of the trickiest groups to advance from, as every team will have a legitimate shot at clawing their way out.  The hosts will feel aggrieved to have the now-hated France squad thrown into their group.  However, home field advantage can do funny things to teams (Cue 2002 World Cup).

South Africa – The Bafana Bafana could come out deceptively strong in Group A with battle tested EPL players Steven Pienaar, Benni McCarthy and Aaron Mokoena (the captain) pulling the majority of the weight for the hosts.  Playing

Steven Pienaar with striker Bernard Parker

on their home turf will be key for South Africa, as the World Cup should work wonders for national pride (as well as the economy).  If you remember 2002, South Korea surpassed about everyones’ expectations by marching into the

semifinals of the tournament with the aid of their countrymen.  Steven Pienaar will be the spark plug that will ignite the South African engine.  His flair and work rate have dazzled at Goodison Park this season, and he will be looking to emulate his form for the Toffees in his national team colors.  It’s always a great thing to make the World Cup finals, but the nation will be gunning hard for one of the spots that sends them into the first round, and, all things considered, could actually be possible.

Mexico –

Nobody needs a second telling that Mexico are typically a card carrying tournament team.  With their recently returned (heavily) seasoned veteran Cuauhtemoc Blanco (37 years old) pulling the strings and up-and-coming sensations Giovani Dos Santos and Carlos Vela doing the footwork, El Tri should be favored to grab one of the top spots in Group A.  It also helps that they have a very adept keeper in Guillermo Ochoa.  However, it will still be a tall order as France is gifted in every position and Uruguay’s physical approach may disrupt their fluid build up play.  It won’t be a cake walk for El Tri, but if they stick to their guns and pass the way they know how, I’ll tip them to take top spot in the group.

Uruguay – Uruguay has two titles under their belt (sure they were in 1930 & 1950) and have a squad that may be capable of upsetting favorites Mexico and France.  Easily their top dogs are Ajax hitman Luis Suarez and Atletico Madrid Diego Forlan.  Forlan will be coming off a great win over Fulham in the Europa League final and will be looking to build off that.  Martin Caceres is a rising star in defense at Juventus and should sure-up the back line but will have his hands full with Nicolas Anelka, Steven Pienaar and Carlos Vela.  The rest of the back line could be relatively leaky for Los Charruas and could be their downfall.  Suarez and Lodeiro represent Ajax at the club level and are both fully capable of find ways to break down defenses in any group and shouldn’t be overlooked as a serious contender for a top spot.  Suarez is literally gushing goals for Ajax (49 goals this season in 48 appearances) and is one of the players to watch in Group A.

France – It’s hard to say anything positive about France still, as the infamous hand ball got them in the tournament

Gourcuff pulling strings for Bordeaux

and, if that isn’t enough, they get placed in the group where South Africa is the top seed.  The big man must really be looking out for Les Bleus.  That said, they should be the easy favorites for the group, but they failed to impress in any sense during qualifying and could flop as hard as they did in 2002.  France is a wild card and it is hard to predict which team will actually show up.  They won in 98, earned zero points in 2002 and made it to the final in 2006.  Nobody will know truly if they have a shot until kickoff, but it’s just so hard to look past their lineup.  When the spine of a team is Hugo Lloris, William Gallas, Lassana Diarra, Yoann Gourcuff and Thierry Henry, they should be tipped to win it all.  Not to mention, they have attacking dime pieces like Nicolas Anelka and Franck Ribery to tear apart defenses.  In terms of who to look out for?  I’ll put my money on the Gourcuff (Don’t believe me? Watch his goal against PSG), the midfield maestro is only 23, was named Ligue 1 player of the year for 08/09, made Ligue 1 team of the year  for 08/09 and 09/10 and was named French Football’s player of the year for 2009.

Prediction –

1. France

2. Mexico

3. South Africa

4. Uruguay