Uruguay and Paraguay?
If it were the NCAA basketball tournament, instead of the World Cup, this would be like having LaSalle in the semifinals and George Mason in the quarterfinals.
And your bracket already torn to shreds.
But this is soccer, and if you need a reason to stay interested after the U.S.’s disappointing departure, well, grab a vuvuzela and root for one of these two. Because, honest to Dick Vitale, they are decided underdogs in the best tradition of March Madness upstarts with no small dose of nationalism thrown in.
For decades these two nations, with a combined area less than Texas, have lived in the gargantuan shadows cast by their larger, more powerful neighbors, Brazil and Argentina, visibly, economically and, especially, athletically. On a soccer-mad continent, they have been relegated to decadeslong Brand Xs.
But as red-faced Brazil was on the way home to what will undoubtedly be a sour welcome, Uruguay and Paraguay remarkably play on as the lowest-ranked remaining teams and celebrated survivors.
Uruguay, thanks to yesterday’s 4-2 penalty shootout victory over Cinderella Ghana after a 1-all tie, and not a little luck, meets the Netherlands Tuesday in one semifinal, the chants of 84,000 most pro-Africa fans still ringing in its ears.
Paraguay, which won a shoot-out over Japan, plays Spain today for a place in Wednesday’s other semi.
Both have done it with defense, allowing the fewest goals in the competition, making their shots count in extra time and fortuitously dodging (or batting down) some bullets.
Yet, few outside of Montevideo or Asuncion could have imagined this scenario. And even folks there might have wondered how much grappamiel, Uruguay’s national drink, had been imbibed since Uruguay was the last team to qualify for this World Cup, requiring a playoff victory over Costa Rica just to get to South Africa.
But there they are, while Italy, England, France and Brazil have already been bounced. The anguish of the latter is especially sweet for Uruguay, which next month celebrates the 185th anniversary of its independence from Brazil.
Los Charruas, as the Uruguayans are known, have long savored as a sporting high point the storied "Maracanazo" goal that beat Brazil in the 79th minute of the 1950 World Cup in stunned-to-silence Rio de Janeiro.
For Uruguay, whose glories were in the long-ago past, as the architecture of its downtown capital recalls, soccer is a nostalgic bridge to those fading days. Just as La Salle was a once-upon-a-time national champion in basketball, Uruguay, which won the inaugural World Cup in 1930 and another in 1950, has yearned for a reminder, if not return, to its heydays.
But, except for a quarterfinal appearance 40 years ago, there has been little to wake the echoes on that side of the River Plate, until now.
Uruguay and Paraguay are still on the main stage, and how crazy is that?
Enough, perhaps, that after Asamoah Gyan, Ghana’s hero of the victory over the U.S., stroked a penalty shot off the crossbar that could have ended it, it was fittingly left to the one they call "El Loco" (crazy), forward Sebastian Abreu, to knock in the final penalty kick that allowed Uruguay to advance yesterday.
Reach Star-Advertiser columnist Ferd Lewis at email@example.com.