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Unloved Uruguay

I will admit under the cover of darkness, with a long head start from those who might disagree, that I supported Uruguay against Ghana. 

Beirut had been gutted by the Brazilian loss in the afternoon (and here there are the Brazilians and there are the Germans, all else being commentary), so all that was left behind was a sense of solidarity for the little guy, for Africa, for the Third World, for the poor…

Which is why, at a football dinner last night, the air turned to permafrost when I, rather alone, cheered Sebastian Abreu’s cheeky penalty that won the match for the “Celeste.” Echoes of the message sent by Baleka Mbete, chairwoman of the African National Congress, to the Ghanaian team had, evidently, reached even the confines of the neighborhood of Saqiet al-Janzir, where I was watching: “[O]n your shoulders rest the football dreams of mother Africa,” she told them.

The notion of transforming an entire continent into a parent--not least a parent warning you that you had better not lose the bloody football match--struck me as a terribly unpleasant development. So I was with Uruguay, which has spent the last 60 years losing just about everything of consequence in the World Cup (the last time it reached the semi-finals was 40 years ago, in Mexico), with mother South America too distracted to notice among her least gifted of children.

And yet who can deny that Diego Forlan has, arguably, been the most graceful player in this often graceless tournament--a rare midfield general in a game increasingly made up of corporals and sergeant-majors. Luis Suarez will be remembered for having punched the ball off the line in the Ghana match, but his performance has more often been inspired. Uruguay’s defenders, especially Lugano, Victorino, and Fucile, have not been indomitable, but they have been solid in an understated way. Uruguay is not a team that makes people dream, but perhaps that’s why it has slipped through each stage unnoticed.

Now it has to face the insufferable Dutch team, which eliminated the thoroughly passionless Brazilian team. The confrontation will be interesting, between two hardnosed, experienced adversaries. Expect roughness, a lot of acting, players going down as if shot, and more of the abysmal refereeing that has characterized this World Cup. And with Fucile and Suarez out, the advantage will be Holland’s.

But consider this brief recollection in Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano’s Soccer in Sun and Shadow, on the 1950 World Cup final, in which Uruguay defeated Brazil 2-1 at the Maracana Stadium. So certain was everyone that Brazil would win that the Brazilian players were given gold watches with “For the World Champions” inscribed on the back. Jules Rimet, for whom the World Cup trophy was then named, had even prepared a speech congratulating Brazil.

Galeano picks up the narrative: “After the final whistle, Brazilian commentators called the defeat, ‘the worst tragedy in Brazil’s history.’ Jules Rimet wandered about the field like a lost soul, hugging the cup that bore his name: ‘I found myself alone with the cup in my arms and not knowing what to do. I finally found Uruguay’s captain, Obdulio Varela, and I gave it to him practically without letting anyone else see. I held out my hand without saying a word.’”

I doubt Uruguay will do that well this year, but it’s difficult not to be partial to the unloved.