SAO PAULO — With four full days ahead before he next will be required for a World Cup game, Belgium forward Kevin Mirallas figures he’ll have a free moment to place a phone call to his good friend Tim Howard. You know, the gentleman who has been stoning opposing scoring chances for the United States as the national team’s goalkeeper.
“I think tomorrow I call Tim, a little bit joke with him,” Mirallas told Sporting News. “It’s strange for him and for me, because every day I train with him.”
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Mirallas spoke Thursday at Arena Corinthians after playing 88 minutes of Belgium’s 1-0 victory over South Korea to run the team’s points total in Group H to a perfect nine: three games, three victories, all of which put the team into a game Tuesday in Salvador against the United States in the World Cup round of 16.
Teammates at Everton F.C. in England’s Premier League for the past two seasons, Mirallas and Howard have known a matchup in the knockout stages was quite possible since the draw for the tournament was held in early December. Belgium always was favored to win its group. The U.S. always was hopeful it could advance but never so confident it would finish ahead of world power Germany. And the bracket called for the Group G runner-up to face the Group H winner.
A native of Liege who has played professionally in France, Greece and now England, Mirallas called Howard, “my friend” and “a very, very good goalkeeper.”
This is one of the oddities of the World Cup and international soccer. Professional athletes compete against their friends and former teammates all the time in the NFL, the NBA, and MLB. But Howard and Mirallas are current teammates ... except when they compete for their national teams. And then it is possible they’ll be matched against one another in a game that could rank with the biggest they’ll ever play.
We saw it a week ago when Luis Suarez scored two goals to defeat England and four Liverpool FC teammates who were in the opposing lineup. Suarez even took advantage of his friend Steven Gerrard’s botched header to score the game-winning goal.
It’s just different. This comes up in the NBA far less often because there is not as much international competition.
In a month or so, when Premier League teams commence training for the 2014-15 season, Howard and Mirallas again will be working together to win games.
This won’t be the first time the two have faced each other in international play. As the U.S. prepped for World Cup qualifying last May in Cleveland, Belgium and the U.S. met in a friendly. Mirallas opened the scoring in the sixth minute of a 4-2 victory for his squad. It was one of his nine international goals.
“Last season I score against USA, against Tim, but for me it’s a strange game,” Mirallas said. “It’s a big chance when we get against USA. USA play very well in this tournament. Everything is possible for Belgium and the United States. I think it’s a very difficult game.”