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Why I'm rooting for Uruguay

July 10, 2010
Jones By Chris Jones
Special to ESPN.com
(Archive)

JOHANNESBURG -- Good citizens of Uruguay,

Please accept this small token of my affection, and my best wishes. My colleagues in the sporting press sometimes dismiss the World Cup's third-place game as an arcane, unimportant ritual, a kind of consolation prize for two teams that were very good but not quite good enough. That's simply the jealousy talking: We would love for our own countries to still have a game to play. But because we do not -- the U.S. gone, England gone, Canada never even in it -- we've needed to find surrogate teams, teams that, for us, represent the soul of the game. I choose you, Uruguay. Your soccer team has been terrific to watch.

Sure, your strong attackers, physical defenders and a keeper who looks to be 12 years old took some time to build their reputation. On paper -- with the notable exceptions of Luis Suarez and Diego Forlan -- your team might not be the most glamorous, and your opening scoreless draw against France was one of the most boring games of the tournament. Luckily, perhaps, it was overshadowed by the opening game between host South Africa and Mexico earlier that same day, and so your country was not unfairly sullied by its soccer. For us, you've always been thrilling.

Your team played a combined 300 minutes of knockout knockouts, during which you scored five goals. First came your hard-fought 2-1 win over South Korea. Then came what will perhaps be remembered as the game of the tournament -- your shootout victory over Ghana, easily the most exciting sporting event I've had the pleasure to attend in person. And then, alas, you came up short against the Netherlands, 3-2, but not without your fighting the Dutch to the final whistle, a moving display of resilience and desire.

If there's something I've learned about Uruguayans during this World Cup, it's that you have unbreakable hearts.

You might be pleasantly surprised to know that I've taken the time to learn more about your country these last few days, because I've been so intrigued by your seeming national capacity to overcome great odds and to inject a much-needed spirit into the game that I love.

Amazingly, there are only slightly more than 3 million of you, my dear Uruguayans, living in the second-smallest country by area in South America. Your flat, open topography means that your weather in unpredictable, but your soil is fertile, and you have been blessed with some of the most beautiful beaches in the world.

As a writer, I am an admirer of your 97.7 percent literacy rate. But I'm even more impressed by your progressive politics. According to Transparency International, Uruguay, along with Chile, is the least-corrupt country in Latin America. "The Economist" ranks you 21st in the world on the Global Peace Index, the second-most-tranquil nation in Latin America. And you were the first South American country to legalize same-sex marriage.

I've also seen photographs that indicate that you allow your horses to wear hats, which seems both delightfully whimsical and sun sensible.

I will say -- and I mean this -- that I'm still stunned by your two World Cups, won in 1930 and 1950, combined with your semifinal berth this year. As a whole, that might represent the greatest collective performance by a national team in sporting history. (What would we be saying if New Zealand or Slovenia had done the same?) When four CONMEBOL teams advanced to the quarterfinals here, there was premature talk of an all-South American semifinal round, with Brazil and Argentina especially marching relentlessly toward glory. But only you, Uruguay, made it through. Only you saved your continent's soccer reputation, and your larger neighbors should look to you for lessons on how to play this game.

Oh Uruguay, fair Uruguay. I hope that tomorrow, from Montevideo to Colonia del Sacramento, from Artigas to Treinta y Tres, that you might take pride in your boys and how far they have come here. It's a remarkable accomplishment, and you should rejoice when you play Germany, as I will on your behalf.

I've been told that after your defeat against the Netherlands, your streets were still filled with celebration; it would have been impossible to know, seeing your happy faces, whether you had won or lost. Your joy and good humor make it easy for me to wish you nothing but peace and prosperity in your future endeavors. I hope that one day you win that third World Cup, one for every million of you.

In exchange, please allow me to pretend that I'm one of you, if only for a single night. And if you're not going to finish that chivito, maybe you could slide it on over here.

With great love and even greater sincerity,

Chris Jones

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