For 89 minutes he had held them at bay, flinging his body this way and that, expending every ounce of energy and courage in a valiant effort to keep the Netherlands off the scoreboard.
And now the Dutch were moving in on him again, weaving their mesmerizing patterns in front of the net, stringing together an intricate series of passes until everything seemed an orange blur.
The noise from the Florida Citrus Bowl crowd of 62,387 had built to a crescendo when out of the haze and the heat one final shot flew off the boot of Dutch winger Marc Overmars.
Michel Preud’homme took to the air one last time, launching himself toward the ball, reaching out and tipping it onto the crossbar, then pouncing on the rebound.
Seconds later, the final whistle sounded. Belgium had defeated the Netherlands, 1-0, and the unquestioned hero of the hour was 35-year-old Preud’homme.
For a moment, the Belgian goalkeeper just stood there in the penalty area, pumping his fists into the air in delight. Then midfielder Enzo Scifo raced down the field and leaped into his arms. The rest of the Belgian team was not far behind.
Even Dutch goalkeeper Ed De Goey, who had turned in almost as good a performance, walked to the center circle to congratulate Preud’homme.
Later, surrounded by a throng of reporters in the interview room, Preud’homme tried to stop grinning, tried to explain why it had all gone so well and tried to handle three languages simultaneously.
Switching from French to Flemish to English and back again with ease, he fielded question after question.
Why had he played so well?
“I don’t know,” he replied. “I don’t know. It’s a bit difficult to explain why you play good or bad. You are always working to play good, but you cannot explain it.”
What had been the most difficult save?
“It is difficult to say,” he answered. “Maybe the first free kick and the one in the last minute that I hit against the (crossbar).”
How did he feel about the victory?
“It was not too easy,” he said, “but a keeper who can keep the zero is very happy and for sure when it means victory for your team.”
When had he realized it was going to be his day?
“Usually when I wake up in the morning and I get a burning feeling in my ears I know I’m going to play well,” he said. “I had that feeling this morning. I feel I played better than I did against Morocco, but part of my success is a good relationship with the other players and I have that, especially with Philippe Albert.”
Albert might have scored Belgium’s goal, but the defenders who did the most to help Preud’homme earn the shutout were team captain and sweeper Georges Grun and Michel De Wolf, who time and again robbed the Dutch forwards of the ball at the instant they were about to shoot.
What shots did come through, Preud’homme saved.
In the 10th minute, he smothered a wickedly curling free kick from Ronald Koeman. Three minutes later, he dived to deny Koeman a goal on another well-struck free kick.
Before the first half was over, Preud’homme had made another memorable save on a shot by Frank Rijkaard and had positioned himself well enough to force Dennis Bergkamp to twice shoot inches wide of the post. “He was fantastic,” the Dutch striker said afterward. “He got three points for Belgium today.”
In the second half, Preud’homme was perhaps even more pumped up than in the first. He tipped a looping shot by Jan Wouters over the crossbar, punched out a fierce drive by Koeman and flew to his left to make a superb diving save on a shot by Bergkamp. All in the first 15 minutes.
Even Bergkamp paused to applaud the latter effort.
Did Preud’homme feel pressured?
“When the team’s playing well in front of you, you don’t feel much pressure,” he said. “They were taking the pressure away from me.”
After the game, Scifo was asked what he thought about his goalkeeper’s performance.
Replied Scifo: “He is an extraordinary goalkeeper who we don’t want to talk about much because we want him to keep playing this way.”