WASHINGTON, D.C., U.S.A. – Uruguay’s World Cup story ended on a chilly, rainy night in Port Elizabeth with a 3-2 loss to Germany in the third-place game. But the final chapter scripted at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium on July 10 showed that even in defeat, Uruguay ultimately won in South Africa.
Uruguay’s month-long run on soccer’s grandest stage ended with its changing its perception in front of a worldwide audience that saw one of the tournament’s smallest nations make a big name for itself.
La Celeste was once a soccer superpower, winning the World Cup in 1930 and 1950. But in recent years, it had been left in the dust by much of South America, considering Uruguay had made the World Cup just twice since 1990 – in 2002 and this year. Meantime, Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay have consistently made trips to soccer’s biggest show.
But as Uruguay played in front of a worldwide audience against Germany, Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay were back at home, wondering what went wrong in quarterfinal losses.
Uruguay, however, will be remembered for exceeding expectations, not failing to live up to them, as they authored quite a story in South Africa.
Consider: Uruguay arrived in South Africa a 100-to-1 longshot to win the tournament. But Uruguay gave its estimated 3.5 million residents to believe La Celeste is on the cusp of greatness, as its fourth-place showing equals its best showing since 1954 and 1970.
For Uruguay, each of its seven games provided another chapter – and most of the time, another hero.
Who will forget the superb play of goalie Fernando Muslera, who kept the ball out of the net for 338 straight minutes to open the tournament? And what about Luis Suárez’s shot that caromed off the post in the 80th minute to beat South Korea in the round of 16? What about Diego Forlán scoring five goals and becoming the first Uruguayan to win the Golden Ball, awarded to the tournament's best player?
The team’s title aspirations ended with a heartbreaking 3-2 loss to the Netherlands, but just finishing in the top four spoke volumes for a team that wasn’t even good enough to make the World Cup four years ago in Germany.
Against Germany, La Celeste fell behind when midfielder Thomas Müller opened the scoring in the 19th minute, but Uruguay tied the game in the 28th minute when Edinson Cavani scored off a pass from Suárez.
In the second half, Forlán gave his team a 2-1 lead in the 51st minute, but Germany equalized five minutes later on a goal by midfielder Marcell Jansen.
Germany took the lead for good in the 82nd minute when midfielder Sami Khedira headed-in a loose ball after a great corner kick by midfielder Mesut Özil.
On the final play of the game, Forlán hit the crossbar on a free kick from just outside the penalty box.
But what’s next for Uruguay? Was the team’s play in recent weeks a sign Uruguay will be a force in four years when the World Cup kicks off in Brazil? Or was it an aberration? Was Uruguay lucky or truly one of the best teams on the planet?
Maybe it’s too early for a verdict, but this is perfectly clear: When the answer arrives, the world will be watching.