There was never any doubt that this first semi-final of Rio de Janeiro 2006 would be a close run affair. And so it proved as Uruguay emerged victorious from the fourth penalty shootout of the tournament to seal a place in Sunday's final, where they will face the winners of the Brazil-Portugal clash. For reigning champions France, the disappointment is immense. They must now pick themselves up for tomorrow's third-place game.
''We promised ourselves that we'd give it our best shot to try and get as far as possible," revealed the South American's goalkeeper, Diego. "Our aim was the semi-finals, so it's extraordinary that we've been able to do even better.''
Urged on by the Brazilian crowd, the Celeste began the game in highly assured fashion, letting Les Bleus come forward but allowing them very little in the way of shots on goal. The French were committing men forward and with three of their players stranded upfield, Uruguay's keeper Diego launched a counter-attack which found Fabian, who produced an acrobatic cross-shot that opened the scoring.
From then on, the Europeans realised there was no point waiting for the Charruas to venture forward. At the first break, Eric Cantona encouraged his men to continue what they were doing in spite of their numerous chances missed, but the South American wall was still holding firm.
''Along with Brazil, France are the best beach soccer team in the world," asserted Miguel after the match. "The key to this game was to put a stranglehold on most of their players.''
Consequently, it required a somewhat confused passage of play for France to get back into the game. When Noel Sciortino delivered a throw-in in front of the Uruguayan goal, Jeremy Basquaise hurled himself towards it and wrong-footed Diego…by missing the ball. At the far post, Sebastien Perez was then able to dive and head the ball into an empty net.
The third period therefore promised to be an extremely tight contest. The French appeared to have taken control of the game, creating several clear-cut chances, while Uruguay were no longer really threatening. But both sides were aware that another break from the Celeste could well prove decisive, and when Fabian won a free kick six metres out, he made it 2-1 with only two minutes left to play.
But there was still time for the semi-final to become a completely frenetic affair. Didier Samoun proceeded to equalise, before seeing his goalkeeper Jean-Marie Aubry save his side with two tremendous saves in the last 14 seconds.
The atmosphere during extra time was suffocating, with each move punctuated by cries of excitement from the public. But there was to be no further scoring and the fate of the two sides then had to be decided by a penalty shootout. The French captain Jean-Marc Edouard promptly missed his spot kick, whereupon Uruguay's Ricar found the target and sent his side through.
''It's an enormous disappointment since we had the game's best chances," declared a dejected Eric Cantona afterwards. "Their goal was under threat for long spells and I have to congratulate their keeper, who made some great saves. We knew what we were trying to do but things just didn't quite run for us. You can't always control small details such as missing the penalty. At the end of the day, it just wasn't to be.''
Referees: Pedro Infantes (VEN), Michele Conti (ITA), Faisal Sallam (UAE)