Tuesday, July 6, 2010
Montevideo celebrates victory in defeat
"I don't think this guy's Uruguayan! Where are you from?" was the greeting I got from a local shortly before kick-off for Tuesday's World Cup semi-final in Montevideo's Plaza Independencia. It wasn't hard to find the right reply: "I'm Uruguayan for the day!"
Uruguay fans are jubilant after Diego Forlan's equaliser (AP)
• Bouwes: Dutch have the Midas touch
• Gupta: 'What if' for weakened Uruguay
• Wesley Sneijder overjoyed
• Oscar Tabarez proud
I'm pretty sure the scoreboard at the end of the match read Uruguay 2-3 Netherlands, but you'll have to forgive me a little incredulity because no-one in Montevideo appears to have realised they didn't win. Maxi Pereira's stoppage-time strike to set up a nervy last few minutes for the Dutch gave the three million Uruguayans watching from back home (and all of them were watching, every last one) something to celebrate, and as I type from the lounge of a city centre hostel, the capital is still rocking.
"Anything better than getting thrashed will be like a victory for us," one fan told me at kick-off. "We've not been this far in four decades. We can't reach the final, but if it somehow happens, then who's to say we won't be able to beat Germany or Spain? If we beat Netherlands, we can be world champions."
A giant screen has been set up in Plaza Independencia for Montevideanos to follow their team throughout the World Cup, and the city centre was packed for the country's first World Cup semi-final since the 4-2 loss to Brazil at Mexico 1970. My journey across the Rio de la Plata from Argentina was delayed and arriving in Montevideo just an hour-and-a-half before kick-off, I rushed down Avenida 18 de Julio, the main thoroughfare into the city centre, as shops were shutting and people were piling onto buses to head home or to a bar - at two in the afternoon. By the time I'd checked into my hostel and headed towards the central square, Montevideo was at a standstill.
There's nowhere else quite like Montevideo for feeling the footballing history of a city, and watching a World Cup semi-final in the city where the first ever World Cup was held was quite something. Gio van Bronckhorst's stunner early on silenced the plaza and seemingly the whole city, but only momentarily - seconds later the chants of "U-RU-GUAY! U-RU-GUAY!" started up again louder than ever. When Diego Forlan pulled the trigger shortly before half-time, the place simply exploded.
No-one I spoke to thought Uruguay stood a chance against Netherlands, so for the match to end with a one-goal margin gave everyone a real sense of pride. After Arjen Robben put Netherlands 3-1 up a few people began filing out of the square, but not in huge numbers. When the final whistle went the chanting grew and grew as 18 de Julio was turned into a virtual pedestrian-only area by sheer force of numbers. People are still packing the street chanting, drinking, waving flags and letting off flares and firecrackers as I type. Had my coach been too late to catch the match, I'd have assumed Uruguay had just reached the final itself.
Virginia, who saw me taking photos (I hope to include a couple for you in my next report if they're good enough) and stopped to ask where I was from, was almost in tears as she tried to explain just how proud the whole country is.
"The president said yesterday that whether they win or lose today, we have to treat them like heroes when they return, because of what they've managed. Another team is going to win the trophy now, but Uruguay won the championship already. You can see that. Just look at these people!"
Having visited Montevideo before and loved it, I knew there'd be no better place on earth to be this evening had they somehow managed to get into the final. What I hadn't bargained on was it being every bit as enjoyable even though they didn't manage that. Never mind Luis Suarez's handball in the previous round (there were two Ghanaians offside in the build-up, you know) - people here are immensely proud of what their team have managed.
Few nations can match Uruguay's footballing history, but history was exactly what everyone thought it was. A nation of this size has no business reaching a World Cup semi-final in the 21st century. No-one is under any illusions that this is the start of a renewed period of greatness, but Uruguayans can hardly be blamed for enjoying the party while it lasts. South America's last representatives in this year's World Cup have fallen, but everyone here is going to remember this as Uruguay's World Cup all the same.
Now if you'll excuse me, I've got a street party to go and re-join ...