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Howard stands tall for the U.S., World Cup atmosphere enthralls

RUSTENBURG, South Africa -- So I'm standing with the Man of the Match, U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard, along with an Israeli reporter, in the Mixed Zone underneath Royal Bafokeng Stadium. For those who aren't fluent in World Cup/Olympic-ese, all participants in a match walk through this Mixed Zone, and reporters can talk to them -- or the players can just walk on by. On a chilly Saturday night in a Triple-A stadium in this beautiful country, Wayne Rooney walked on by. Howard stopped. Several times. When the mobs were done with him, I said to him: "This was a great event. The electricity, the drama, you playing hurt, the rivalry. Great stuff.''

Howard smiled. "I hope all the Americans in all the bars and all the homes felt the same way. My phone's been vibrating constantly since the end of the game. It was ... it was a great night for the game, and for us.''

"Not just for America!'' the Israeli reporter interjected, holding up his own phone. "The world! My country is excited! I have gotten a lot of reaction.''

"Good,'' Howard said. "Let's keep it going.''

This was the first time the United States and England have met in a World Cup match since 1950, and it lived up to everything it was supposed to be, despite the 1-1 draw. It had a hero -- Howard, who played heroically in his 52nd U.S. national game, holding England scoreless for the final 93 minutes of the game, and keeping the potent side scoreless for 61 minutes after suffering a debilitating injury. It had a goat -- England's goalkeeper Robert Green, who Bucknered the tying goal near the end of the first half. It had golden chances for both sides --Jozy Altidore, the Dolphins' biggest Haitian fan (he's dying to own season tickets there, and he loves Ricky Williams) hit the post in the second half, and Emile Heskey, the English forward, had the kind of chance he'll be dreaming about for years. Think I'm kidding? You should have seem the look on Heskey's face as he walked through the Mixed Zone afterward. It was a wish-I-could-have-one-moment-in-time-back look, bemused and sullen.

First, the Howard injury. There was a loose ball in the goal area in the 36th minute. A passive goalkeeper lets his D take responsibility for it, and if the defense comes up short, well, the keeper can always say, "Not my fault.'' Howard, at 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds, sprinted toward the ball and dove headlong for it, just as Heskey slid in, cleanly, for the ball at the same time. Three things happened at exactly the same time: Howard managed to punch it away with his right hand, Howard's shoulder subluxed and he immediately cried out in pain, and Heskey's cleat hit the keeper's upper right rib area.

Imagine what happened in that one-second span of time. Howard got spiked in the upper ribs by a sliding tackle from a 190-pound striker coming at full speed and, his upper arm bone popped out of the shoulder socket (apparently, from replays), and Howard made a goal-saving save.

"Pretty intense,'' he said, describing the moment. "His spikes got me right here [pointing to the area below in right breast bone], and all of a sudden I was trying to breathe.''

(I have every reason to believe Howard has a significant rib injury, and either a severely bruised shoulder or separated shoulder. As you know, I'm a neophyte about this game, but am advanced enough in my knowledge of the game to know this: Goalkeepers need to use their shoulders and ribs when diving around the goal area. Sunday, I asked U.S. coach Bob Bradley whether he thought there was any chance Howard was coming out after the injury. "It's a given,'' Bradley said. "He's not coming out.'' And I take that to mean, He's not coming out for the rest of this competition, regardless of the pain.)

Now, after the injury, Howard told me he thought he needed 10 minutes to get his feet back under him. But you don't have 10 minutes. You've got two, maybe. And he made it clear he wasn't coming out, whether he could breathe or not. At halftime, a Toradol pain-killing injection in the upper ribs made the second half possible. While it was taking effect, there were a couple of saves he had to deal with: a rising line drive by midfielder Frank Lampard that Howard two-hand-served over the crossbar (and you could tell immediately how it pained him to lift his right arm by the way he brought it down so quickly); and a save on Heskey that both men will replay in their heads for years.

Heskey, a burly forward, had a step on the U.S. defense and came in alone, relatively, on Howard. The book on Howard is he's fearless about ranging far from his goal, and that he's a great angle-player of a goalie. Last month, meeting Howard for the first time, I'd asked him about whether he wanted to be the guy with the game in his hands -- like a quarterback at his own 20 -- at the two-minute warning in the fourth quarter, down six on the road with the game on the line. He told me he does love it -- but of course the idea is to have your defense help you some. If the D isn't there, he said Saturday night:

"You have to be bold in those situations. You've got to cut off the angle and read the intentions of the guy with the ball. I tried to read [Heskey], and I thought I did, but at the end, it happens so fast, and I think he caught it too clean.''

The ball was a bazooka, right into the abdomen of Howard. It wasn't a spectacular save, and that's why Heskey will think about this one for a long time -- because he had an opening to his left and just didn't use it. That's the breaks.

Howard has played 52 games now as the U.S. keeper. He had the huge eight-save win, 2-0, over world power Spain in the Confederations Cup semis last year, and that stage was big. This was bigger. This was a great night for American soccer, despite the draw, and a great night for sports.

***

One other observation about the game: Bradley knows futbol, and football. I went to the U.S. press availability 35 miles north of Johannesburg, at a working farm in Irene, this afternoon and spent a few minutes with Bradley afterward. I hit him with this theory on the first goal of the game Saturday, where midfielder Steven Gerrard snuck inside American midfielder Ricardo Clark deep in U.S. territory and flicked a shot by Howard four minutes into the game for a 1-0 lead: It reminded me of a receiver who gets his outside shoulder inside the cornerback on a post route, and just that tiny edge allows him the necessary space for an accurate quarterback to complete a pass for a big gain.

"Almost,'' Bradley told me. "But that cornerback usually is relying on safety help. Sometimes it's there, sometimes it isn't. In this case, that's exactly what happened to us.''

On the goal, U.S. defender Oguchi Onyewu had to chose between one of two English attackers, Rooney and Heskey, to defend, and his temporary indecision created a crease for Gerrard to charge through. I have seen this so many times covering the NFL: A corner who reacts a tenth of a second too slowly, or a safety who isn't exactly where he's supposed to be on time, can cost a team so much. It happened to the Giants in the 1989 playoff game against the Rams, when Flipper Anderson got a quarter of a step on New York corner Mark Collins. Boom. Giants season over. And in the Super Bowl three seasons ago, fifth wideout David Tyree of the Giants got inside of New England corner Asante Samuel on a post route and scored the first New York touchdown of the game. All it takes is a split-second, and that's all it took Gerrard to beat the Americans Saturday night.

"All it takes in a game like this is a second when the reactions are not exactly what they're supposed to be,'' Bradley said. "That's what tips the scales in games with these stakes. That's what I tell the players -- in most games, the window of opportunity is small. In a game like this, with the greatness of the players, the window's smaller.''

"This is what you prepare for mentally. You don't prepare mentally for making great saves and playing the perfect game. You prepare for trauma.''

-- Goalie Robert Green, who will have plenty of that for a long time. He allowed the softest goal in recent World Cup history -- or maybe ever -- which turned into the equalizer in the 1-1 England draw with the U.S. Saturday.

"He must wish the ground would open up and swallow him whole.''

-- BBC's World Cup Live Blog, on Green's goalkeeping gaffe.

"Hopefully the English papers take it easy on him tomorrow.''

-- United States defenseman and captain Carlos Bocanegra, thinking wishfully, about Robert Green.

Well, the News of the World and the Sunday Mirror both headlined their stories on the match with "Hand of Clod,'' a mocking reference to the famous Diego Maradona shot that propelled Argentina past England in the 1986 World Cup.

"Worst England blunder ever,'' the Sunday Mirror said.

"This ball has been doing silly things.''

--American goalkeeper Tim Howard, trying to defend his pal. And they really are pals. They've met and know each other from competition in Britain.

Not that silly, Tim.

Drove to Rustenburg Saturday with football editor Mark Mravic (a not-so-closeted socceraholic), his son Branko and fellow scribe Mark Bechtel (you can follow Bechtel and Mravic's adventures on SI's World Cup blog). It's a three-hour drive via the scenic route -- a sometimes-mountainous, sometimes-Bush-dissecting trip to a stadium in a midsized city known for its platinum -- and gold-mining in the country's North West Province. It's a Kansas City-type city, I'd guess, rising out of the countryside.

So we were an hour from the stadium, out in the bush, and I spied a tiny roadside eatery with one table and two barstools called The Garden Café. We stopped. The other three got the local sausage, cooked on a tiny round propane grill, and I got a grilled tomato and cheese sandwich. As we ate, I asked the proprietor, a friendly, dentally challenged man named Leon, if he'd been able to see the South Africa-Mexico draw the previous day. No, he said, because he'd had some work to do around his restaurant and cottages. But he heard about it.

"From the guys out there,'' he said, nodding to the bush, a endless area of tall brown grass. "Guess they had a radio. But when South Africa scored, I heard all kinds of screaming from there.''

In my first week in South Africa, I have had waiters named Offer and Quiet.

But those can't top the first name of my bartender Sunday night in Capetown.

Medicine.

I'm here with my wife, and the other day, we were in a cab in Cape Town and the driver asked where we were from.

"I grew up in Pittsburgh,'' my wife said.

"The Steelers!!!!'' the fellow said.

"You know the Steelers?'' she said.

"Everyone knows the Steelers!'' he said.

"My kids have asked why there are so many bees in south africa. "Do they eat a lot of honey?"

--b_bandhauer, Brandon Bandhauer, of Barre, N.Y., on the constant 90-decibel hum of horns called vuvuzelas throughout World Cup games, to my @worldcupking Twitter account during the game Saturday.

1. I think if you didn't like that game Saturday, you don't like sports.

2. I think it's fairly ridiculous that here we are, at the biggest sports event in the world, and the fans in the place -- and the media -- have to guess at the time remaining. In Johannesburg Friday, the only way to track the time of game was to use binoculars to follow the world TV feed, which was being played on the small scoreboards in either end of the stadium, with the elapsed time running in the upper left corner of the screen. In Rustenburg, it was worse -- the time was not on either scoreboard and the only way you knew how much time was elapsed was the two or three times per half the PA announcer said how much time was gone. This is one of those things that you soccer purists can tell me all you want about how "this is the way it's always been in soccer'' and "look at your watch if you want to know how much time is left.'' It's dumb. Maybe that was okay in 1950, but a clock on the scoreboard isn't going to ruin the precious tradition of soccer.

3. I think Wayne Rooney has some Michael Irvin in him. He knows when to grab when he can get away with it.

4. I think Rooney's the genuine item. You only have to see 97 minutes of soccer to see that.

5. I think the best thing I can tell you about the World Cup, compared to American sports, is that it's about three times as intense as the Super Bowl. I was sitting in this mid-sized stadium (no press box, just a row near the top of the lower level, covered, outside), about 15 minutes before the game, with no teams on the field, no immediate promise of players coming out of the tunnel to take the field, and the vuvuzelas were trumpeting at maybe 90 decibels by themselves, and the fans were screaming and chanting to add maybe 20 more decibels, and I'm thinking, "There's no one in sight, and the anticipation is so ridiculous that these people are screaming themselves silly.'' It's no knock on the NFL. I love big games in the NFL. But this -- with games in 20 or so town squares on huge screens EVERY day of the World Cup, and the nation taking the month off to watch them (not in person, maybe, but on these screens or on TV) -- is some great sport right here.

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