[URUGUAY] With a final, audacious blast off the crossbar in stoppage time that could have extended its lifeline, Uruguay concluded its most impressive World Cup performance since lifting the trophy for the second time 60 years ago.
Diego Forlan, who had earlier cracked home an incredible side-volley to give Uruguay a 2-1 lead, drilled a searing free kick that would have tied the penultimate World Cup match with the last kick of regulation time, but as it came back off the bar referee Benito Archundia blew his whistle. The men in sky blue collapsed onto the turf or stood bent over at the waist as they wiped away from their faces the rain and sweat and perhaps a few tears shed upon realization that along with the game, their presence at this World Cup had ended.
After winning its group for the first time since 1954 – not much of an accomplishment back then since it played only two matches – Uruguay defeated South Korea (round of 16) and Ghana (quarterfinal) before bowing out with guns blazing in 3-2 losses to the Netherlands (semifinal) and Germany (third-place game).
The fourth-place finish matches the Uruguayans’ performance of 1970, and the manner and style by which they did it softened memories of ruggedly brutish teams that competed in the 1986 and 1990 events. For decades, Uruguayans have spoken of “garra chaurra,” a warrior-like spirit steeped in pride and honor, but at those tournaments – despite the brilliance of Enzo Francescoli and other talented players such as Ruben Sosa – the term took on darker and uglier meanings in other countries. Uruguay bore a reputation of ruthlessness and foul play that lingered as it failed to qualify for all but the 2002 competition.
Last month, Uruguay didn’t win over many neutrals by grinding out a 0-0 tie with France in its opening game and losing Nicolas Lodeiro – a substitute! – to a pair of cautions 16 minutes apart. He got the first just two minutes after coming on in the 63rd minute, and left the field following a vicious lunge into Bacary Sagna. Was this an Uruguay similar to that in 1986, which lost a player to a red card 65 seconds into a match with Scotland yet advanced out of group play by fouling and stalling for the remainder of a 0-0 tie, or the 1990 team that needed a last-minute goal from a questionable free kick to down a 10-man South Korea and advance?
No, this Uruguay was different. Though it often defended with six or seven players capable of teeth-rattling tackles, the lineup teemed with skill. Despite his team being outshot, 18-7, Forlan was named Man of the Match against France. He forced a good save from French keeper Hugo Lloris and narrowly missed on two other attempts.
Cast as the villain in its next match against host South Africa, Uruguay instead drew praise and respect even while breaking the hearts of a nation by outclassing Bafana Bafana, 3-0. Forlan netted twice, and Alvaro Pereira added a stoppage-time goal that gave Uruguay the upper hand in goal difference going into its final game against Mexico, which also had four points. After misfiring on a point-blank header, Luis Suarez put away a cross from Edinson Cavani in the 43rd minute by which Uruguay beat Mexico, 1-0, to finish atop Group A -- and open up the the path to the semifinals on the opposite side of the bracket from such heavyweights as Germany, Argentina and Spain.
While the Uruguay midfield consisted mainly of destroyers and ball-winners, Forlan’s range and vision and immaculate touches were enough to unhinge opponents. Cavani preferred to stay wide, usually on the right, with Suarez adept at finding space centrally or knifing in from the flanks. Underrated left back Jorge Fucile’s attacking raids bolstered the offense, and the strong, calm presence of captain Diego Lugano marshaled a defense that posted shutouts in all three group games.
Goals early and late by Suarez downed South Korea, 2-1, in the round of 16. Tied 1-1 after conceding its first goal of the competition, Uruguay prevailed when Forlan played a corner to Suarez near the left side of the penalty area, and he swooped through a challenge to curl a superb goal off the inside of the far post.
In a pulsating quarterfinal, Suarez blocked a Ghana shot on the goal line with his arm in the last seconds of extra time. Asamoah Gyan slammed the resulting penalty kick off the crossbar, and in the aftermath of Uruguay’s victory in a penalty-kick shootout (which included two saves by keeper Fernando Muslera) Suarez and his teammates were labeled cheats. They claimed, accurately, that just about any player in the same situation would have done the same thing.
With Suarez suspended, Uruguay lost its semifinal to the Netherlands, 3-2, after surrendering two quick goals midway through the second half. Suarez returned to face Germany, and in defeat Forlan struck one of the tournament’s best goals to sign off his country’s World Cup with a glorious flourish.
He waited near the edge of the penalty area as Egidio Arevalo crossed from the right, and when the ball came Forlan side-volleyed it viciously downward. It skipped off the wet turf and flashed past goalie Hans-Jorg Butt before he could move. The resilient Germans rallied to take the lead and Uruguay’s late push came within inches of prolonging the action.
The nation that won the first World Cup as host in 1930 and shocked Brazil at the Maracana 20 years later had given the world a reminder of what the tournament, and garra, truly mean.