Coach Jurgen Klinsmann delivered some good news for U.S. fans on the eve of the World Cup knockout match against Belgium, announcing Jozy Altidore’s hamstring has healed enough that he is “available” to play if needed.
“Jozy is available, and this is what we hoped for,” Klinsmann said at a news conference Monday. “Just having him with us is huge. How many minutes can he play? We’ll see that during the game.”
The U.S. coach then raised international eyebrows by questioning FIFA’s decision to assign a French-speaking Algerian referee to the game. When asked whether he was concerned the game will be officiated by Djamel Haimoudi, Klinsmann replied:
“We hope it’s not a concern. We know he did already two games, and he did them very well. So, we wish that he continues refereeing the perfect way he has done so far. Is it a good feeling? No. Because he’s coming from the same group with Belgium and Algeria.
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“He’s able to speak French with their players on the field, not with us. And Algeria is a country that we beat in the last second at the last World Cup. Sometimes, I know, I understand FIFA. I know it’s difficult to choose referees. Always kind of tricky. But it is what it is. We will give him absolutely the benefit of the doubt, respect the decision and hope that everything goes well.”
(In other words, Mr. Haimoudi, Klinsmann has put the world on alert and wants your officiating to be closely scrutinized.)
Belgium coach Marc Wilmots, who is a friend of Klinsmann’s, dismissed the issue.
“I rarely talk to referees,” he said. “The three referees in the group stage, I never talked to them. And a referee is not there to talk, but to referee. If we start going into this, it’s just finding excuses ahead of the match.”
Haimoudi, 43, worked at the Africa Cup of Nations in 2008 and 2012 and last summer was the referee for Italy’s third-place win over Uruguay at the Confederations Cup. So far at this World Cup, he worked the Netherlands’ 3-2 win over Australia and Costa Rica’s 0-0 draw with England.
Wilmots also shrugged off the disparity between the amount of travel the U.S. and Belgian teams did in the opening round. The Americans traveled 10,188 miles, more than any other team. Belgium traveled the least (1,368).
“I don’t know quality of the planes,” he quipped. “If you ask me, I prefer to fly as little as possible, but the heat can make a difference in a match, not the flying hours.”
The main concern for the United States, though, is not the referee, or their frequent-flier miles. It is the 23 players on the Belgian roster. The majority of them play in Europe’s top leagues, 12 in the English Premier League. They went undefeated through World Cup qualifying, won their three group matches so far in this tournament and over the past 13 matches have 11 wins and two draws.
“Belgium is a country that doesn’t have the history of Germany or Italy or some of these countries, but when you look over the past few years, when you look at the quality of their players, it certainly has to be talked about as one of the best teams in Europe,” U.S. midfielder Michael Bradley said.
Belgium was pegged as a dark-horse favorite to go deep into this World Cup, and midfielder Axel Witsel said Monday that a loss on Tuesday would be considered a failure.
“I think it’s very clear that if we don’t qualify for the quarterfinal, it will be a failure for us,” he said. “We have all the quality to advance, and will be very disappointed if we won’t.”
‘NO FEAR AT ALL’
Belgium beat the United States 4-2 in a friendly in Cleveland in May 2013, and many of the American players in that match are the same ones who will line up Tuesday at Arena Fonte Nova.
Klinsmann had high praise for Belgium’s team but insisted his team is capable of winning.
“We have no fear at all,” Klinsmann said. “We’re ready to go eye to eye with a very good team ready for a real grind. Anything’s possible. Sky’s the limit, but we have to get over some hurdles, and this is a very big hurdle, no doubt about it. We believe we have built the foundation to beat them, but every player needs to be willing to go 120 minutes, plus a penalty shootout if they have to.”
Both coaches used the phrase “50-50” to describe the chances of winning knockout matches.
“A new tournament is on, no more calculations,” Wilmots said. “You have to be ready to go 90 minutes, 120 minutes and penalty kicks.’’
Klinsmann said the team has been preparing for a penalty shootout, scouts have done homework on the Belgian shooters’ tendencies, and U.S. goalkeeper TimHoward has helped as he plays against a dozen of the Belgians in the Premier League.
There will also be a concerted effort among the Americans to attack more than they did against Germany.
“It’s definitely something that we learned out of the Germany game,” Klinsmann said. “We were too deep. Especially the first 20 minutes, I was screaming my lungs off there to get the back line out and to move the entire unit high up the field. We have to bring the players higher up and create chances get more support for Clint [Dempsey], and come down the line more often on the sides.
“We have to be alive and courageous from the first minute.’’