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Sunday, July 11, 2010
Uruguay make a nation dream

Sam Kelly in Montevideo

"The octopus was right: we've not made the podium," reads the front page of the website of Uruguay's main daily newspaper El País. It's difficult to imagine, though, that there'll be too many downhearted in CONMEBOL's smallest nation on Saturday evening. Following the World Cup semi-final defeat to the Netherlands there were shouts of 'semi-finalists!' on the streets of Montevideo, and this match will have been an excuse to celebrate a team who'll be remembered for decades to come in the annals of Uruguay's proud footballing history. Such is the humility the country has shown throughout this campaign that on the morning of Tuesday's semi-final, La República ran with this: "If the Oranje don't go through today, Uruguay, for the first time ever, could become World Cup runners-up." Never mind the fact that they've won the thing twice before - the whole country seemed, over the last week, to realise that, as manager Óscar Washington Tabárez put it before the semi, "we're at a party we weren't invited to". The hope for Saturday was that the team could beat Germany and claim their place as the best Uruguayan side since Alcides Ghiggia stunned Brazil and silenced the Maracanã in the decisive game of the 1950 tournament. As it was, they had to make do with merely emulating the fourth place achieved in Mexico 1970, but this time round there's more pride in the achievement; four decades since the last semi-final, and with the tournament and football's worldwide demographic having grown so much since then, 2010 feels like more of a journey. And, controversy in some countries regarding Luis Suárez's contribution aside, there's no doubt Uruguay deserve the plaudits. Tabárez recognised this after the match, telling the press, "we knew we were the surprise package, but we've proven that we're going in the right direction". The nation back home won't expect this to be the start of a period of greatness for the side, but it's a mark of Tabárez's ambition that he insists, "we need to improve so we can start beating these big teams". Back in Montevideo on Wednesday, I'd been told by one local that, "if we play Spain in the third-place match I think we can beat them. But if it's Germany they'll win easily". So much for easily - only young goalkeeper Fernando Muslera's two mistakes for Thomas Müller's and Marcell Jansen's goals significantly separated the teams. The team's last two matches may have been lost by identical scorelines, but in neither did they look woefully out of place against their more heralded opponents. On Monday, Tabárez and his boys will return to Montevideo and be given a parade through the streets of the city in front of close to one million fans (Montevideo's population is 1.3 million) before being welcomed home by the country's President, José Mujica. The welcome they'll get will be quite something, and I must say as an Englishman that I wish some of our excuse for a team could have been with me in Montevideo to see the effect a genuinely competing side had on the public. It might have made one or two of them think a little harder about just what realistic expectations are, because here is a nation that were happy just to be at the World Cup, but nonetheless enjoyed the ride all the way to the crunch games - in spite of a history which includes more success than England's own. Pride of place in the parade for the semi-finalists of course will go to Diego Forlán, who might yet gain recognition from FIFA as the best - or one of the best - players of the tournament. Having been included in the shortlist for the Golden Ball and leading the voting for some time, Forlán mysteriously dropped way down the voting percentages on Friday after the page went down for a while, leaving La República in an outrage. Gentleman that he is, he's not likely to be too bothered. After the match Forlán remarked that, "if you'd asked us before the World Cup whether we'd like to get this far, we'd have answered that of course, we'd have liked it". Admirable understatement, surely. Forlán always talks in terms of the team, but when asked about the other award he's in the running for - the Golden Boot for the tournament's top scorer is currently tied between himself, Müller, plus David Villa and Wesley Sneijder, both of whom will play the final - he responded, "I don't want to burn my head ... I know I've done what I had to. I'm calm. If it's meant to be, it will be, but I'm already happy to be competing with such great players". Regarding the Golden Ball, he merely says, "it would be spectacular ... but it's a source of great pride just to be considered". This Uruguay team will live long in the memory of their fans, and whether or not Forlán is distinguished by FIFA for his performances, his performance in South Africa might just edge out the great Enzo Francescoli for the title of greatest Uruguayan attacker since the glory years. A bizarre piece of symmetry is that when the year ends in a zero, Uruguay do well: winners in 1930 and 1950, semi-finalists in 1970, second round at Italia 90 (also with Tabárez in charge), and now this. The next year-zero World Cup will be 2030. One hundred years on from the first - and there are online campaign groups running petitions to get the final played in Montevideo again, perhaps through a joint-hosting arrangement with Argentina. Would that be a step too far? The locals in Montevideo I asked know it's not realistic, but after the heights this team have hit in South Africa, "maybe FIFA can show a little romance themselves," as one gentleman just old enough to remember the 1950 triumph told me. This team have done something special: they've made a nation dream. And there's little higher praise than that.

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