CAPE TOWN, South Africa - The World Cup turned sour for South America in the quarterfinals. Only one team from the continent advanced - Uruguay, the least likely of all to make the final four.
Yet here the Celeste (Sky Blue) are, playing the Netherlands today for a spot in the final. The last nation to make the 32-team field, needing a playoff victory against Costa Rica to get in, Uruguay is alive and well in South Africa.
“Uruguay is a strong side and we will have to be very concentrated,” Dutch coach Bert van Marwijk said. “They are fighters, survivors.”
Indeed. After winning their group without allowing a goal, the Uruguayans have beaten South Korea (2-1) and Ghana (4-2 on penalty kicks after a 1-1 draw) in the knockout phase.
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Tough as they have been, the Uruguayans needed the “hand of Suarez” to stay in the tournament.
Striker Luis Suarez blocked a Ghana shot with his hands at the goal line in the final seconds of extra time on Friday. He drew a red card and is suspended for the semifinal, but Asamoah Gyan hit the crossbar with the penalty kick.
Reprieved, Uruguay won the shootout, and Suarez was hailed as a hero back home.
But he’s been called a cheat by some foreign media. That annoys coach Oscar Tabarez.
“It was an instinctive act, nothing more,” Tabarez said. “Suarez couldn’t have foreseen that, afterwards, Ghana would miss the penalty.
“Don’t talk to me about a lack of humility. The Uruguayan people bring out their collective personal strength when they have to. We are very proud, and we’re upset by this topic. We’re proud of our performances and what we’ve contributed to this World Cup. Uruguay went through the three previous games with hardly a yellow card, so please don’t tell me we’re cheats.”
The young forward, who has three goals in the tournament, said he has no regrets.
“The way in which I was sent off – truth is, it was worth it,” he said.
Truth is, every player in the tournament would have done the same thing to spare his team certain elimination.
But without Suarez, the last South American team standing after Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay went out in the quarterfinals is a long shot to win its third title and first since 1950. The Uruguayans are running as a 10-1 long shot, while Spain is 2-1 and both the Netherlands and Germany are 9-5.
“I suppose the press have made the Netherlands (the) favorite,” Uruguay captain Diego Lugano said. “The Netherlands and Uruguay play differently, but we are at this stage on merit and we’ll just have to see what happens in the match.”
Lugano might not see the field because he has a right knee injury. Fellow defender Diego Godin has a left hamstring problem.
Uruguay and Holland have split two meetings. The Dutch won the only World Cup match, 2-0 in 1974, on their way to losing in the final to the hosts in West Germany.
The Netherlands, often considered the best soccer nation never to win a World Cup, also lost the 1978 final to Argentina – in Argentina.
The Dutch don’t have to worry about hostile crowds. They figure to have the majority of fans on their side. South Africa has strong Dutch ties, of course, and thousands of fans traveled here from the low country.
Not nearly as many Uruguayans are here, and after the team beat Ghana – and in the way they beat Ghana – it’s unlikely many Africans will be cheering for the Celeste.
Not that the Dutch are worried about fan support.
“We’ve won five times in a row and the victory over Brazil gives us such confidence,” Netherlands captain Giovanni van Bronckhorst said. “Now we’re in the last four, we want to play the final.”
ALL ABOUT URUGUAY
• Two-time World Cup champion (1930, 1950); hosted first World Cup (1930) after winning back-to-back Olympic gold medals (1924, ’28).
• Stunned host Brazil in 1950 round-robin finale. More than 173,000 paying customers and an estimated 210,000 in all packed into Rio de Janeiro’s Maracana Stadium expecting to witness coronation of Brazilians, who had dominated the tournament and needed only a tie to secure their first world title. Uruguay, which had to win, fell behind 1-0 but came back to score twice and silence the festive throng.
• National team also known as the Celeste (Sky Blue) and Los Charras, a tribute to the no-longer-with-us indigenous Uruguayans.
• Only six countries smaller in population than Uruguay (3.5 million) have participated in a World Cup.
• Has 68,037 square miles (Washington has 71,342 square miles).
• Has enduring rivalry with neighboring Argentina over which country gave birth to the tango.
• Estimated 88 percent of the population are of European descent
• The first country in the Americas to achieve complete digital telephone coverage in 1997.