NIZHNY NOVGOROD, Russia (Reuters) - Uruguay’s never-say-die players fell to the floor in tears after losing their World Cup quarter-final to France, but they depart with heads high after yet again shaking it up among the world’s best.
Despite a tiny population of 3.3 million people, Uruguay got out of the group stages in the last three tournaments, reaching the semi-final in 2010 and the last eight this time.
In Russia, they won three group games without conceding a goal, before eliminating Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal 2-1 in the last 16. They were well-beaten 2-0 by France on Friday, but will always wonder what might have been if influential striker Edinson Cavani had not been out with injury.
The absence of Cavani, who scored two wonder goals against Portugal and draws defenders away from strike partner Luis Suarez, distorted Uruguay’s game plan and gave France an easy evening except for one superb save by goalkeeper Hugo Lloris.
“I didn’t even get a shot in,” lamented a frustrated Suarez, who astonishingly did not have a touch in the French box.
Yet the team walked off to resounding chants of “Uruguay!” from Russian fans, an ovation from their own supporters, hugs from the French, and inspiring words by their coach.
“We dream on. Things never end. A World Cup comes around every four years,” said Oscar Tabarez, noting Uruguay had surpassed great soccer nations like Germany and Argentina in reaching the last eight.
At home, Uruguayans were sad but bursting with pride.
“There’s nothing to reproach,” said former captain Diego Lugano. “Thanks to the players for again being World Cup protagonists and stirring a nation.”
There was huge sympathy from Uruguayans towards defender Jose Gimenez, whom cameras caught crying minutes before the end as he realised it was too late to turn the game around.
One British pundit called that “embarrassing”, but for Uruguayans it was proof of the passion that has seen them punch above their weight since winning the first World Cup in 1930.
Once the emotions settle, Uruguay have some serious work to groom a new generation, given mainstays like captain Diego Godin and strikers Cavani and Suarez are now all in their early 30s.
Tabarez, in charge for 12 years and known lovingly as ‘El Maestro’ (The Teacher) at home, said his future was up to local football association bosses - but there has been no sign they want to move him on after such success and stability.
Inevitably, it was French forward Antoine Griezmann — a fan of Uruguay and friend of Godin and Gimenez from Atletico Madrid — who put the nail in the South Americans’ coffin.
Not only did he supply the cross for France’s first goal, but it was his shot that squirmed through goalkeeper Fernando Muslera’s hands for the second.
Out of respect, he did not celebrate.
“Uruguay are a tough team, who remind me of my club side Atletico ... They are a pleasure to watch,” he said.
Griezmann has promised to visit Uruguay for the first time in December. Despite putting them out of the World Cup, Uruguayans are sure to give their French amigo a warm welcome.
Editing by Amlan Chakraborty