Most people never think about Uruguay...why would you? The tiny piece of land is home to only 3.5 million inhabitants and resembles a sliver stuck between the toes of the much larger Argentina or Brazil. ‚ The country is known for three things: Green tea, cattle, and soccer. But as a British football fan I was chatting with the other day said, if it weren't for the World Cup, he wouldn't even know that the place existed.
Truthfully, I haven't really thought about Uruguay since this Simpsons clip made me laugh years ago.
Yet after Friday's World Cup quarterfinal with Ghana, Uruguay will be etched into the memory of millions of Africans. ‚ Indeed, ‚ the small South American nation has punched Africa in the stomach twice in a matter of weeks. First, they effectively ended the home team, South Africa's, chances of glory. Then, it destroyed the last hope for an African winner by beating Ghana on penalty kicks.
Johannesburg was the defacto capital of Ghana on Friday in advance of the big game at the Soccer City stadium. ‚ Around town locals and Ghanaians came together to celebrate the possibility of an African team making it to the Semifinals of the World Cup for the first time. ‚ Black Star flags flew from businesses, cars, and balconies across the city.
Ghana fever was even starting to inspire a new vocabulary. People were referring to the Black Stars as "BaGhana BaGhana" a play on the nickname of the South African team, "Bafana Bafana." ‚ Newspaper's published punny headlines like, "Their Ghana win," and even Nelson Mandela was quoted as saying a Black Star victory could unify the continent.
Alas, somebody forgot to leave a copy of this Hollywood screenplay in the Uruguayan locker-room.
In the 120th minute, Luiz Suarez, the Uruguayan forward, denied Ghana's last second heroics by blocking a sure header goal with his hands. He's since referred to his defense as "The new hand of God," likening his actions to that of Maradona's famous "Hand of God" goal. ‚ Local newspapers here have a different take on his feat, referring to Mr. Suarez's appendage as the "Hand of Lucifer" or the "Devil Hand of Uruguay."
I'll admit, all players at the World Cup level should be able to compose themselves and convert a penalty kick, regardless of the pressure of the situation. ‚ Asamoah Gyan, the Black Stars' forward failed to do this and as a result turned the last few minutes of the game into a never-ending debate on soccer etiquette and gamesmanship.
I had one foot out the bar door when the penalty was given to Gyan. I was ready to race out into the street and rejoice with hundreds of other fans on Johannesburg's 7th Ave. ‚ I wanted to soak up the moment of African's coming together to celebrate something unequivocally positive and historically unprecedented.
Uruguay will be carrying the torch for Latin America now, as its more celebrated neighbors from Brazil and Argentina have been sent home. If you are in America or Europe, that's probably the headline in your newspaper this weekend. ‚ But in Africa, Ghana's defeat has been a tough pill to swallow ‚ for ‚ millions of people who had hoped to see the World Cup trophy stay on the continent.
This week will be quieter in South Africa. ‚ People will watch the remaining games but with little of the fanfare that would have resulted from having an African dog in the fight. The Black Star flags will become memorabilia.
At Green Point stadium in Cape Town--the site of Uruguay's semifinal match against the Netherlands--a handful of South Americans in blue jerseys tucked under winter jackets and sipping their mate' tea will celebrate their team on Tuesday. ‚ But elsewhere on the continent, maybe a‚ team has already started practicing, preparing for a moment four years from now when Africa will get its World Cup revenge on South American soil.