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 are, ready to play the Netherlands today for a spot in the World Cup final. The last nation to make the 32-team field, needing a playoff 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. From that two-game playoff with Costa Rica to winning their first-round group and not allowing a goal, the Uruguayans have made an impressive showing. They punctuated it with victories over South Korea, 2-1 in the second round, and Ghana, 4-2 on penalty kicks, after a 1-1 draw in the quarterfinals.
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 arm at the goal line in the final seconds of extra time Friday night. He drew a red card and is suspended for the semifinal, but Asamoah Gyan hit the crossbar with the ensuing penalty kick.
Reprieved, Uruguay won the shootout, and Suarez was hailed as a hero back home.
But he also has been accused by some of cheating. That annoys coach Oscar Tabarez.
“It’s a shame that people are speculating that,” he said. “It (the handball) was a natural reaction). The player didn’t know that they were going to miss the penalty.”
The young forward, who has three goals in the tournament, said it was “complicated” to be ejected from a World Cup game. “But 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 keep his team from 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 longshot, 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, but Tabarez would not discuss his lineup or those injuries Monday.
Tabarez said he was protesting the Uruguayan media crashing a private practice earlier in the day.
Uruguay and the Netherlands have met twice, each team with a victory. The Dutch won the only World Cup match, 2-0 in 1974, on their way to losing in the final in Germany. They also lost the 1978 final in Argentina, both times to the home team.
The Dutch don’t have to worry about being the visiting team here, and they figure to have the majority of fans on their side. South Africa has strong Dutch ties, of course, and thousands of fans traveled from the low country to the tournament. Not nearly as many Uruguayans are here, and after the team beat Ghana — and in the way they beat Ghana — it’s unlikely too many Africans will be cheering for the Celeste.