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July 2, 2010

The return of the spoiler

Jones By Chris Jones
Special to ESPN.com
(Archive)

JOHANNESBURG -- The Uruguayans have done it again, nearly 60 years after they last knocked a home crowd flat, nearly 60 years after they last played the role of silencers. They have been at their best when they've been their most cruel. On Friday, they were at their best.

Sebastian Abreu finished things, scoring the winning penalty in an agonizing shootout. The man they call Loco did it in the most sinister way. Ghanaian keeper Richard Kingson had committed early on the previous four shots, guessing and diving long before the ball had been struck. Abreu had been watching Kingson, and he had made up his mind. He took a slow jog toward the ball and nudged a gentle little chip right down the middle. Kingson, who had gone to his right, had time to turn back and watch the ball whisper into the back of the net. It was a shot any 10-year-old might have stopped had he known where it was headed. Instead, Kingson joined a continent that had already dropped to its knees.

Ghana had become Africa's team. There were 84,017 fans at Soccer City on this night, and maybe 84,000 of them were supporting the Black Stars. It was a warm, loud, magical atmosphere. And then, in an instant -- after Abreu had ended one of the most dramatic finishes in recent memory with his delicate twist of the knife -- the place went lifeless. It felt as though a giant candle had been blown out.

On July 16, 1950, the Uruguayans pulled a similar trick against Brazil at the World Cup. Then, the winner would be the team that won a group made up of four finalists: Brazil, Sweden, Spain and Uruguay. The Brazilians had enjoyed incredible home support in easy wins over Sweden and Spain. They needed only a tie against Uruguay in the final game to claim their cup. It was a lock. The Brazilian Football Confederation had made gold medals for its team in anticipation. A celebratory anthem had been written. Nearly 200,000 fans packed into Estadio do Maracana in Rio de Janeiro, ready to dance, especially after the Brazilians took a 1-0 lead.

But then the Uruguayans tied the game, and in the 79th minute, Alcides Ghiggia scored what would prove to be the winner in the 2-1 match. "The Maracana has been silenced by three people: the pope, Frank Sinatra and me," Ghiggia told ESPN earlier this summer. "I was happy because we won the World Cup, and I scored the winning goal. But despite the joy we had, it was sad to see the stands. You could see people were crying and desperate."

People were left crying and desperate again Friday night.

Normally, Uruguay -- tiny Uruguay, the second-smallest country to qualify for this World Cup, with a population of only 3 million -- would be a sentimental favorite here, a team the rest of the world might root for. The Uruguayans play powerful soccer, anchored by beautiful set pieces, and they last advanced past the World Cup quarterfinals in 1970, when they finished fourth. But with Ghana poised to be the first African team to advance to the World Cup semifinals and with this entire continent behind its Black Stars, the Uruguayans instead played the role of spoilers. They were the villains once again. For people who believe in the greater joy, Abreu's finish was an unthinkable end. It felt as though the promised script had been torn up, as though Sonny Liston had knocked out Muhammad Ali.

The Uruguayans celebrated their victory on the field, a small but boisterous crowd of supporters rushing down the stands to greet them, but the rest of the fans in the giant stadium first stood silent and then ran out into the night.

In 1950, Jules Rimet, then the president of FIFA, had to put away the congratulatory speech he had written in Portuguese. He didn't hear the expected song or cheering. He stood on the field in the Maracana and looked out into the leveled stands. "The silence was morbid," he said after, "sometimes difficult to bear."

So, too, must be Uruguay's burden. It must be hard to smile in the face of so many broken hearts. The Uruguayans must know they have ended many dreams.

But they still have their own; they still are in with a chance to win their third World Cup, one for every million of them. Tonight was, in fact, an incredible achievement, a historic accomplishment, an amazing game with an even more amazing finish.

It was just hard to remember that, in the quiet after, in the dark. It was hard to remember that sometimes the greater test is in blowing out the candle, not in keeping it lit.

Chris Jones is a contributing editor to ESPN The Magazine and a writer-at-large for Esquire.