It should not be difficult prising an uplifting World Cup tale from Tim Howard. After all, this is the man who set a record of 15 saves against Belgium, was thanked by Barack Obama, replaced Chuck Hagel as the US secretary of defence on Wikipedia as his internet profile went viral and has guest-starred on comedian Jason Sudeikis’s latest episode of Ted Lasso, the hapless US soccer coach fired after six and a half hours by Tottenham. So what are Howard’s abiding memories of Brazil? Losing and trying to pee in the company of the man responsible for his World Cup misery.
The Everton goalkeeper’s reflections on the World Cup serve as a jolt and a reminder that, for a professional sportsperson, acclaim, financial reward and even recognition from the president of the United States are secondary to the need to win. Jürgen Klinsmann’s USA team enthralled in progressing from a group containing Germany, the eventual world champions, Ghana and Portugal.
They left the watching world breathless with that epic last-16 tie against Belgium. But they lost. For their 35-year-old goalkeeper, who he is taking a 12-month break from international football and plans to quit football when his Everton contract expires in 2018, that is the bottom line.
“In 2010 we lost in the round of 16 and in 2014 we lost in the round of 16,” Howard says. “We were poo-pooed in 2010 and we’re celebrated now, but we still lost in the round of 16 so it’s all a little bit lost on me. I played well on the day, we were resilient against a real tough Belgium team. But I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited. We lost a game of football when although we played a good team, we could have won at the end.”
Howard’s defiance against Belgium was broken in extra-time by Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku. Despite Julian Green’s response and several late chances there was no reprieve for the US and Howard’s night deteriorated when selected for a post-match doping test. Not easy after sweating for 120 minutes in Salvador, nor when the Belgium player chosen turned out to be Lukaku – the match-winner who turned his Everton loan spell from Chelsea into a permanent stay for £28m after the World Cup.
“I was happy for him as a person because I regard the guys at Everton as like my family. I love those guys,” Howard says. “It was heartbreaking to lose but I was oddly happy for him because I believe in him and love him as a person. He is not arrogant, he is a good person.
“We were just standing there trying to drink water. Your mind is racing. He is looking forward at a World Cup and I am looking back. We didn’t talk about the game. We talked about our families and we spoke a little bit about what was next for him. He said he’d had some good conversations with Roberto [Martínez, the Everton manager] so I was encouraged by that.
“I didn’t have to beat him over the head about joining Everton. We made our case last year. Maybe he had to keep things in check. I wanted to go cry in the locker room and he wanted to celebrate. As much as I felt his joy, he felt my pain. Eventually we both peed and we left.”
The following day Howard and his captain, Clint Dempsey, were summoned to a room at the team hotel for a call from Obama, who credited their performances with “focusing” the US on the sport. “We spoke to him via a speakerphone. It all had to be checked out by secret service first and through the White House,” Howard says. “I’m fortunate because 99.9% of people don’t get to speak to him. You just try not to say anything stupid really, just ‘yes sir, no sir’. He watched the game with his family and said he was on the edge of his seat. It was cool that he was so excited about it.”
Obama admitted “soccer” was his first sport growing up in Hawaii and knew exactly what lay in store for Howard. The president advised the goalkeeper to shave his beard – he hasn’t – in an attempt to avoid crowds and cautioned: “I don’t know how you are going to survive the mobs, man.” The attention, you suspect, has been the downside of the World Cup for Howard, who admits the anonymity he enjoyed back at home in North Brunswick, New Jersey, has faded since his exploits in Brazil.
He says: “It has gone a little bit. It’s down to the internet, but I’ve lived in Manchester for 12 years. Football in England is a fish bowl and you have to deal with it. I’m very comfortable with it. I can compartmentalise things. I have my own little bubble and I don’t really get carried away with all of it.
“There is no privacy in our culture any more so I have to try and carve that out for myself, but I’m OK with it. I’ll sign autographs but not when I’m out for a meal or out with my kids. That’s rude and disrespectful. I would never ask anyone for an autograph while they were eating dinner. That’s what I was taught by my parents.”
Howard may be comfortable with World Cup fame but will be relieved to return to the sanctuary of a competitive game at Goodison Park against Arsenal on Saturday . “It will be good to get home,” he says. “It feels like I haven’t been there forever.” He described April’s 3-0 defeat of Arsenal as “one of the signature performances since I have been at Everton” and is intrigued to discover whether that display, when Lukaku was switched to the right by Martínez to exploit Arsenal’s weakness at left-back, will have a lingering effect.
He says: “We switched things up on them last season and we really hurt them. Will they be coming to defend against that or will they be trying to play straight up? I don’t know. We had a system and a style that worked last year and we need to grow from that.
“Getting Rom was a huge thing for us, I don’t think the money can be down-played, and our ambition is to finisher higher than last year. Other clubs have been spending ridiculously for the past 10 years and we have still managed to find a way. Now we are doing it with style and with better players, so I don’t see why not.”
Everton’s No1 for the past nine years announced he was taking a break from the national team on Thursday but is adamant it is not a retirement. Howard has not ruled out one more World Cup campaign but accepts there is no guarantee of a recall. What is certain, he insists, is that 2018 will be his final year as a professional. The four-year contract extension he signed with Everton in April will be the American’s last.
“Prior to 2010 it was simple,” he says. “I thought I will play for four years and go to the World Cup and then I will go again and play in a World Cup. Now it’s harder. I’m getting older. I’ll be 39 at the next World Cup.
“My contract here will have just finished and I’ll be done with football at the end of that. It would be perfect timing. There are other things I want to do. I want to do lots of things in my local community back home, get out of the public eye for a while and just be normal. Football has been great for me and to finish up at Everton after 13 years and then maybe have another World Cup would be great.
“If I stay free from injury and keep myself fit, and the mental challenge for me has never been an issue, then I don’t see why I can’t be in the mix and be considered. Whether it’s as No1 or the No2 I don’t know, I will have to compete for that, but I don’t see why not if the circumstances are right.”
Everton supporters’ groups in the US held a Tim Howard Appreciation Day last Saturday, with more than 50 pubs involved. That is one by-product of Brazil that has Howard’s support. “A friend sent me an image of a flyer that was on the internet. Free beer for everyone, that’s cool,” he says. “You get 15 minutes of fame, I hear, and I’ve had 14 minutes. The clock’s ticking.”