JOHANNESBURG -- When Uruguay overcame Ghana in its World Cup quarterfinal last Friday, it marked perhaps the greatest escape in tournament history, coming as it did after Ghanaian forward Asamoah Gyan missed a potential game-winning penalty in the dying seconds. But what's almost as remarkable is how close La Celeste came to not being in South Africa at all.
As is its habit, Uruguay's qualifying campaign made Jason's trip on the Argo look like a Sunday cruise. La Celeste struggled to find consistency throughout, tying Venezuela twice. But a 2-1 away win over Ecuador left La Celeste in control of its own destiny heading into the final day of qualifying.
Uruguay found itself in fifth place, a spot that would win it a playoff with the fourth-place finisher from CONCACAF. But a win at home over Argentina would let Uruguay finish fourth and guarantee a trip to South Africa.
Yet instead of sealing its place, Uruguay nearly threw away its World Cup ticket. La Celeste lost to their neighbors 1-0, and they only maintained their hold on fifth place because Ecuador lost away to Chile 1-0.
"We played against Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, Chile -- great teams with great players," said Uruguay forward Diego Forlan after the win over Ghana. "You play in altitude, you play in warm weather, in cold, different types of climate. Then you play on different types of pitch, and everything. It's really tough."
That meant a two-legged playoff with Costa Rica awaited, and of course, Uruguay turned this encounter into an odyssey, as well. La Celeste appeared to have done the hard work in the opening away leg, prevailing 1-0 on a goal from captain Diego Lugano.
The second leg was thought to be a formality, especially when Sebastian Abreu scored with 20 minutes remaining to put Uruguay up two goals on aggregate. But not only did Walter Centeno pull one back for Costa Rica, forward Alvaro Saborio was presented with a clear chance to bring the Ticos level on aggregate and ahead in the playoff based on away goals. Fortunately for La Celeste, Saborio missed his chance and the trip to South Africa was theirs.
"Once we qualified for the World Cup, we knew it was going to be a different tournament, and we were focused on each game," Forlan said.
Indeed, Uruguay has made the most of its reprieve and even escaped the executioner's axe once again against Ghana, courtesy of Luis Suarez's handball on the line that denied Dominic Adiyiah a goal, and Gyan's aforementioned penalty miss.
Now Uruguay will attempt to continue its good run of form in the semifinals against the Netherlands, even though Suarez and defender Jorge Fucile are both suspended, while Lugano is in a race to recover from a knee injury. Yet if any team is used to overcoming such obstacles, Uruguay is.
"The World Cup showed us that everything is different and you have to play the games," Forlan said. "It doesn't matter the history of the country or the names of the players. Once you are on the pitch, you have to play. There's no name, there's nothing. You have to try to win."
No matter what the odds.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He is also the author of "Soccer's Most Wanted II: The Top 10 Book of More Glorious Goals, Superb Saves and Fantastic Free-Kicks." He can be reached at email@example.com.