Rio de Janeiro - Lionel Messi, Neymar and Robin van Persie make the headlines, but the World Cup’s real heroes have been goalkeepers like Tim Howard, Guillermo Ochoa and Julio Cesar, who throw themselves into the line of fire.
“Two words TIM HOWARD #respect,” was the simple Twitter comment made by Belgium’s captain Vincent Kompany within minutes of his country finally beating the United States in the last 16 on Tuesday.
Belgium’s Romelu Lukaku, who hit the winning goal, and Dries Mertens both hugged Howard at the end of their 120-minute onslaught on the 35-year-old Everton goalkeeper.
Howard’s 16 saves, some at point-blank range, two spectacularly flicked over the crossbar, were a record for a goalkeeper in a World Cup match since 1966.
“My own performance doesn’t matter. I signed up to get my face in front of the ball. If I had no saves or 20 saves, it doesn’t mean anything less,” he said diplomatically.
The US defence seemed unable to resist the Belgian attack of Mertens, Divock Origi and Eden Hazard and US coach Jurgen Klinsmann said Howard kept the team in the game right to the end. The Americans had chances to equalise right until the final seconds.
“How Tim played tonight was just phenomenal,” Klinsmann said. “As the game went on, on the back of Tim’s performance we got back in the game.”
The heroics of Howard was also noticed by Belgium coach Marc Wilmots.
“We had something like 27 chances in the game and we deserved our win. We created a chance after just two minutes and it was fantastic goalkeeping from Tim Howard that kept us out,” Wilmots told the post- match press conference.
Similar compliments have been paid to Ochoa for giving Mexico an unlikely 0-0 draw with Brazil in Group A, and Cesar for his heroics in keeping Chile at bay in a game Brazil won to reach the quarter-finals.
Costa Rica’s ‘keeper Keylor Navas was the hero as his side, down to 10 men, beat Greece in their last 16 game.
Germany’s Manuel Neuer has been hailed for rushing out of his penalty area to clear the ball as North African minnows Algeria poured forward on Monday.
“He reacted like a libero and protected us from many situations that smelled of danger,” said Germany coach Joachim Loew.
Neuer has a good job with Bayern Munich, but for some of the other goalkeepers, the brilliant performances could be a career saver.
Mexico’s Ochoa, who held Brazil at bay for 90 minutes, was without a club after his French side Ajaccio were relegated to the second division and his contract ran out last month.
One sprawling one-handed save from a powerful header by Brazil striker Neymar has been compared to the legendary stop by England’s Gordon Banks against Brazil’s Pele at the 1970 World Cup.
“I feel really flattered,” Ochoa, 29, said of the comparison. “Of course I’d rather have less work,” he added.
His shift in Fortaleza has earned interest from English sides including Liverpool, according to media reports.
Costa Rica’s Navas was another goalkeeper to earn Man-of-the-Match honours as his side beat Greece to reach the quarter-finals for the first time.
Navas has been hailed as his country’s new “Lucky Rabbit”, the nickname for Luis Gabelo Conejo, who kept goal for Costa Rica at the 1990 World Cup finals.
Having thwarted Italy and Uruguay in landmark group victories, Navas again performed spectacular gymnastics as he punched away a spot kick by Greece’s Fanis Gekas in a penalty shootout.
Navas, who plays in Spain for Levante, said: “I have already faced great players and I am not scared. It’s a good challenge for me to play against the best.”
Brazil’s Julio Cesar hopes his two penalty shootout saves against Chile will turn him from a national villain to a respected figure alongside the country’s other football legends.
The 34-year-old has faced national humiliation since his mistake was blamed for Brazil’s defeat to the Netherlands in the 2010 World Cup quarter-final.
Cesar revealed that he took a religious cross, given to him by his reserve Victor, when he went into the goal for the Chile shootout. He saved two penalties and Chilean Gonzalo Jara’s kick came off a post and just managed to stay out of the goal.
“Julio Cesar and the goalpost save Brazil from humiliation at home,” said Folha de Sao Paulo newspaper’s front page.
“After the (2010) World Cup to be labelled as the villain, it was very bad for me,” Cesar said. “I got the support of my family who just supported me. This allows me to have the necessary strength to go forward,” said the emotional keeper, fighting back tears.