Everton's No1 Tim Howard will line up between the posts for his first taste of FIFA World Cup™ qualifying at the fabled Azteca on 12 August, when the USA renew their tense rivalry with Mexico. The 30-year-old shot stopper will take his position at the base of a wall of anger and contempt, with approximately 110,000 animated Mexican fans sending shockwaves of noise and bile his way for a full 90 minutes.
Like Tony Meola, Brad Friedel and Kasey Keller before him, Howard is preparing to accept one of the toughest assignments in all of world football: Mexico at their Estadio Azteca. FIFA.com sat down for an exclusive chat with the New Jersey native, who was recently voted top keeper at the FIFA Confederations Cup, ahead of this, the latest CONCACAF Clasico.
FIFA.com: Last time we spoke was over a month ago after the loss to Brazil in the final of the FIFA Confederations Cup in South Africa. Looking back, with a bit more perspective, what are your feelings about it?
Tim Howard: To be honest, my feelings haven't changed much. We did some really good things against some really good teams [beating Egypt and Spain before surrendering a 2-0 lead against Brazil]. But on the other side we learned some harsh lessons. We played some of the best teams in the world and when you make mistakes against those kinds of teams, you get opened up in a hurry.
Up next is a date with Mexico, currently struggling in fourth place in the final round of CONCACAF qualifying for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™. What makes the USA-Mexico rivalry so intense and so heated?
It's all about the passion of the fans. For so long Mexico dominated our region, dominated us. Now, and for some time, we have been the dominant team. So there's a lot of anger and hurt feelings between the two of us. Let's face it, for they kicked our butts for a long time. And when the tide turned, they didn't like it. Why would they? It's just a pure and natural rivalry.
Where would you rate this rivalry, this Clasico, between the two nations in the scope of world football?
Most people around the world, in Europe and elsewhere, can't really understand just how big this thing is here. It's quite simply massive. That's the case with most of these great rivalries. How can you really know how special River-Boca or Celtic-Rangers or Barcelona-Real Madrid is unless you've been there and felt it?
You were in goal the last time USA met Mexico, a comprehensive 2-0 win in Columbus in February. Does that game, and that result, matter now?
In some ways, yes, it does. It was the last time we met with our full teams and we certainly got the better of them on the day. Maybe the Mexicans will feel that having won the CONCACAF Gold Cup [Mexico beat an experimental USA squad 5-0 in the final in New Jersey last month] will swing the balance back in their favour, but that's more useful for a story or an article than what's going to happen out on the field.
When you, as an experienced professional, walk out of the tunnel on a big derby day, whether it's Everton-Liverpool or USA-Mexico, does it feel differently, or can you bury those feelings?
As a human being, you can't completely control your feelings. These are special days for players. If games like this didn't have special meaning then no one would get excited about them; they'd just be like any other game. You can't always put your finger on what it is you're feeling, but it's a special thing.
Coach Bob Bradley brought a highly experimental squad to the Gold Cup, and they were hammered in the final by Mexico, a slightly less experimental side. Do you think the El Tri attackers will have grown in confidence as a result?
There's no doubt that the Mexican players will be feeling good about themselves. Our rivalry is so tense, that every little thing is important. It doesn't matter if it's the first team or the second team; it's the shirt that's important. But the ball's in our court now and we'll try to set things right.
I don't need to tell you that no USA team has ever won at the Estadio Azteca. Is the possibility of making history something that weighs on you and your teammates before a game like this?
Practically no one but Mexico wins at the Azteca [only Costa Rica, in 2001, have ever won a qualifier in Mexico City]. But I've always had this feeling that this group of players, this US team, can do something special there. You might hear me telling a different story on the 13th, after the game, I'm not making any predictions, but this group of players is bold and will put history to the side.
How do you do that?
We have a core group of experienced guys who can push the younger players in the right direction. But we, to a large extent, are a brash young team with a blend of naivety and boldness. We're thinking 'why can't we win?' I think we can do something special, something no other team has done before.
Altitude is always a problem in Mexico City...
Yeah, but I think we have the edge this time. In South Africa at the Confederations Cup we played at high altitude in nearly all of our games. Not only that, but we played against the best teams in the world, teams that move the ball and punish your mistakes. This could give us the edge. We're hungry, and if we can find the right balance, anything is possible.
The FIFA.com EMIRATES MatchCast
Don't forget, on Wednesday, the FIFA.com editorial team will be providing you with a live commentary of the day's proceedings; analysing which teams are moving closer to a place at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa - and which teams are seeing their dreams slipping away.
There is also a section devoted to goal flashes - proving that FIFA.com has it on the net when it hits the net! Find out who has scored and where as the qualifying action unfolds. Log-on to MatchCast at 18:00 CET for the first games of the day!