MANAUS, Brazil – More than a decade before Sunday’s massive World Cup group stage matchup against Portugal, Tim Howard went on a reconnaissance mission to the English Premier League to scout the man who would one day become the best player in the world.
Okay, maybe that’s not exactly how it all went down when the US goalkeeper joined Manchester United in 2003, but he did get an up close and personal look at Cristiano Ronaldo when the two players spent three years together as rising stars with the Red Devils.
What exactly did Howard learn? Nothing the rest of the world doesn’t already know by now.
“There’s nothing that I saw in three years that could prepare me for tomorrow,” Howard said Saturday, the final day of preparations before the teams square off at Arena da Amazonia (Sunday, 6 pm ET; ESPN; PREVIEW). “I don’t have any secrets. He’s a top-class player. In my days of playing I’ve played against a few, and I’ve won some and lost some. Hopefully tomorrow it’s a win.”
Portugal coach Paulo Bento insisted Saturday that despite recent injury concerns, Ronaldo trained with the team this week and is fit to play in the teams’ second group stage match, which means the Americans will have to deal with the world’s best player as they originally planned when they drew Ronaldo and Portugal back in December.
“I don’t think there’s only one strength, there’s a lot,” Howard said. “He’s strong physically, he’s a fast runner and he’s the best in the world with the ball at his feet. He’s a good striker with his left and right foot, and he’s dominant in the air. The list goes on and on, that’s why he’s the best player in the world.
“We’re gonna do our best to bottle him up, but it’s not been done in four or five years,” Howard added. “We’ll see what we can do. We have a game plan in place and if we can execute that, then we give ourselves a good chance.”
Back in 2003, Howard was a 24-year-old talent who left Major League Soccer for a career with one of the premier teams in the world in Manchester United, and an 18-year-old Ronaldo had similar plans. Ronaldo eventually spent six years as one of the most successful and electric players at Old Trafford, and his success came as no surprise to those who saw him in the early days of his career.
“We always knew he was special, the moment he stepped in the door,” Howard said. “He had skills that I’d never seen before. Could we imagine that he would be the World Player of the Year? Not at that time, but he certainly had the tools.”
While Howard and Bento faced a litany of questions surrounding Ronaldo in their respective press conferences on Saturday, the US goalkeeper was careful to stress that despite mounting injuries Portugal are still a dangerous team, regardless of how the Americans deal with Ronaldo.
“Of course he’s their main man, and maybe the main man of this tournament,” Howard said. “We have to know where he is and we have to collectively get around him and get some help and support each other defensively, but he’s certainly not the only one.”
Ronaldo was relatively quiet in Portugal’s sobering 4-0 loss to Germany in the teams’ opening match last week, held to seven shots and no real dangerous threats on goal.
But that’s not fooling Howard. He’s known him too long to expect anything but the world’s best when Ronaldo steps on the field this time around.
“Do I think he can score a goal? Yeah,” Howard said. “I hope he doesn’t. I’ll try by best.”