Wednesday, July 7, 2010
Proud exit for understrength Uruguay
They punched above their weight for much of this game but finally the double-whammy with less than a quarter of the match to go ended Uruguay's dream run in this World Cup. It was a 3-2 defeat their dignified coach, Oscar Tabarez, accepted with typical grace, but surely at the back of his mind, and that of every Uruguay supporter, would be a series of "what ifs."
• Bouwes: Dutch have the Midas touch
• Kelly: Montevideo celebrates victory
• Wesley Sneijder overjoyed
• Oscar Tabarez proud
As in, what if Uruguay had been at full strength, with their main strike man Luis Suarez and their captain Diego Lugano? What if Holland's second goal had been ruled offside? What if Diego Forlan had been fit enough to last the frenetic final ten minutes?
You sense, though, that Tabarez deals only with the here and now. Refusing to dwell too long on the claims for offside on Wesley Sneijder's goal, he preferred to dwell instead on the positives his team - and, he repeatedly stressed, his country - have gained from this. "You couldn't ask for more from these players or from Uruguay," he said. "If you had to choose a way of losing it would be this."
One clarification: When I say Uruguay punched above their weight, it is with reference only to the size of their country and the comparatively modest reputations of some of the team - Tabarez himself pointed out that the other three semi-finalists were all "powerhouses of Europe". On the field, they had the measure of Holland, finding their poise after conceding the snap opening goal.
They did it thanks to a phenomenal workrate by the midfield, especially the diminutive Walter Gargano and Egidio Arevalo, who ran, retrieved balls and snapped at heels; it was as if they were determined to prove Lugano and Suarez would not be missed, nor Diego Forlan from his usual place pulling strings in the centre of midfield.
Forlan, playing higher up the field than usual, seemed out of sorts at the start, evidently missing his strike partner; his passes were just that bit out of sync. But with Edinson Cavani doing the running around alongside him, he too got his radar working. His new role on the pitch decreed a goal from inside the box but when he did strike, it was from his usual position 25 yards out.
That goal came four minutes before the break and Uruguay seemed to struggle at the resumption. That could have been due to a loss of momentum, or Holland's introduction of Rafael van der Vaart, which worked a treat for the Dutch. They had their chances, and those they did not create themselves were gifted to them by an unusually nervy Dutch defence - there were three such loose balls in the space of ten minutes - but they couldn't make the most of them.
Then came the double-whammy, with Uruguay claiming the first of those, from Sneijder, had Robin van Persie in an offside position. It didn't look so in the replays and Tabarez, in the press conference, didn't make a meal of it either. No arguments with the second and by then it seemed Uruguay had given up. Forlan and Cavani were back on different wavelengths and the scoreline remained as it was only because the Dutch took their foot off the pedal.
There was time for a final flurry, and moments of high drama in injury time. Maxi Pereira's goal conjured up images of extra time and an improbable conclusion but it really wasn't on the cards. Uruguay return home to their ecstatic supporters, having performed beyond anyone's wildest dreams. They reached their first semi-final in 40 years and did so on the back of consistent and reasonably positive football. Forlan proved he didn't really have a point to prove, and Luis Suarez proved his clinical eye in front of goal.
Above all they had their coach Tabarez, who handled controversy and acclaim with the same dignity. He was applauded off the podium after Tuesday night's press conference; you can guess it was as much for his performance as for his team's.