World Cup heroics hypnotise Uruguayans
World Cup 2010: Johannesburg
On 1 March, during the course of a holiday, I happened to find myself in the middle of joyous Uruguayan festivities. People were pouring on to the streets of the capital Montevideo to celebrate the night away, singing patriotic songs and dancing until the early hours of the morning.
Little did I know that, thanks to the World Cup, only four months later Uruguay would be at it again.
I had arrived in the second smallest country in South America at a time of national rejoicing. It was the day that Uruguay's new president Jose Mujica was inaugurated.
Talking to the locals, they were overwhelmingly optimistic about the future, surfing a wave of patriotic fervour that was only just beginning to die down towards the end of my five-day stay.
However, even those days of partying pale in comparison with the way people have responded to the exploits of 'Los Charruas' at the World Cup in South Africa. In reaching the semi-finals for the first time since 1970, Oscar Tabarez and his team have become heroes - and Montevideo has once more become the setting for frenzied celebrations.
Gonzalo Larrea, a football journalist for El Pais newspaper who warned me before the tournament started that Uruguay would become one of the surprises of the World Cup, says he has never seen anything like it.
"Honestly, I still cannot believe what is happening to us," Larrea told me. "I was pretty optimistic before, as you know, but this country is experiencing something really unique now, with thousands celebrating on the streets like something never seen before."
Larrea is part of a generation of Uruguayans for whom footballing success was previously little more than a history lesson. His country were winners of the first World Cup as hosts in 1930 and then stunned Brazil in the Maracana to win the tournament once more in 1950.
With the exception of their semi-final appearance in 1970, there has been little to cheer for Uruguay. Prior to South Africa, their last win in a World Cup match had come at Italia '90, the last time Tabarez was in charge. Suffice to say a scrappy 1-0 win over South Korea did not provoke the scenes of the last few days back home, scenes which Larrea is only too happy to talk about.
"Everyone knows we have a rich history in football, with two World Cups and many glories," he says. "But we all thought those days had been left behind. My generation had never seen something like this and we were starting to believe we never would.
"When we won 3-0 against South Africa, people started celebrating on the streets, while the main avenue, 18 de Julio, was full to bursting. When we beat South Korea to reach the quarter-finals, no-one could believe it. The celebrations were very impressive."
Avenida 18 de Julio was where I watched the reaction to Mujica's induction, delighted I'd found a street named after the day that also happens to be my birthday. Some elementary digging led me to discover that Uruguay's first constitution was adopted on 18 July 1830, exactly 150 years to the day before I made my entrance into the world.
There's more. On a visit to the Estadio Centenario, a footballing monument to a bygone era dripping in historical significance, I learned that the stadium had opened on 18 July, 1930, with Uruguay beating Argentina 4-2 in the first World Cup final 12 days later. The picture of me, top-right in this blog, was taken while I was sitting inside the stadium I share a birthday with.
Outside the first World Cup final venue, Montevideo's Estadio Centenario, in March
Walking around the museum, taking photos of the first World Cup final football, it felt like Uruguay's footballing greatness belonged to a different age. My request to speak to the sole survivor of the 1930 final, the 100-year-old Argentine Francisco Varallo, fell on deaf ears, while my budget did not stretch far enough for an interview with the hero of the 1950 final, match-winner Alcides Ghiggia, now 83.
It seemed as though Uruguay's time had come and gone - until their thrilling, controversial penalty shootout win over Ghana, the last African team in the tournament, sent them back into the sporting stratosphere.
Luis Suarez may have been cast as the villain in the host continent after he denied Ghana victory with his now infamous handball on the line. But the Ajax striker will forever be a hero in his homeland after Asamoah Gyan missed the resulting spot-kick and Uruguay won on penalties.
"Winning that match and the way it was achieved was epic," admits Larrea. "The feeling we have is more than happiness. There's euphoria, optimism, never-before-seen nationalism, with thousands of flags displayed all over the city and on buildings and cars. People are so proud.
"Regarding Luis Suarez, he is seen a real hero - maybe THE hero. I don't know about your country but here what he did is not seen as cheating. It was his last resource and he defended the game in the way he could. The footage of him celebrating Gyan's missed penalty will long stay in people's memories here.
"After the match, fans were already singing songs with his name and his hand is already being called the 'Hand of God' and the 'Hand of an Angel'."
Suddenly, Uruguayans are experiencing a sensation perhaps not felt in the country since 1930, when they went into the World Cup as favourites on the back of winning gold medals at the 1924 and 1928 Olympics: Expectation.
But with a population of only 3.4 million, do Uruguayans really think the second-smallest of the 32 competing countries in South Africa can beat the Netherlands and go on to win their third World Cup?
"Well, expectations are growing as the hours go by," said Larrea. "At first, the general feeling was we didn't care about the Dutch but, as the match gets near, we start to feel we can win. If we get to the final, it will be very hard to beat us, I'm sure about that.
"There's a mixture of emotions. We know on one hand that this is more than we could imagine and we cannot ask for more. But, on the other hand, we are so close and we dare to see ourselves as world champions. Why not? It's not impossible at all."
Few Uruguayans will remember but this is a country that knows how to win the World Cup. The partying in Montevideo may have only just begun.