At the business end of a penalty shoot-out in the quarter-finals of the FIFA World Cup™, it takes a special kind of player to wait until the keeper commits himself before sending a delicate chipped effort down the middle of the goal. Which is why Sebastian ‘El Loco’ Abreu’s nickname is so fitting, with the globetrotting Uruguayan’s impudent spot-kick clinching a 4-2 shoot-out success over Ghana and sending La Celeste into the last four for the first time since Mexico 1970.
What is more, Los Charrúas had looked down and out in the final minute of the extra-time period, only for Asamoah Gyan to strike the bar with a penalty awarded for Luis Suarez’s handball. “It’s true that things went our way but I don’t believe in luck,” Botafogo striker Abreu told FIFA.com in an exclusive interview minutes after the game.
“We’re part of a project that began in March 2006 and has involved a lot of hard work and humility to make Uruguay competitive again, so it’s not fair to label this as lucky. We reached the semis at the Copa America (2007), we qualified for an Under-17 World Cup, an U-20 one and the senior finals. So, if you take a good look at our story, you’ll see that luck’s not a part of it.” The 33-year-old was also keen to dismiss the role fortune plays in penalty shoot-outs. “In these situations the main factors are effectiveness, confidence and self-belief. Our keeper was very effective and so were our penalty takers. It’s that simple,” added Uruguay’s No13.
‘It could have gone either way’
“At this level physical condition is a big factor and they (Ghana) are physically very strong. What’s more they had the crowd on their side, which is always a bonus. But we were able to counter both those things. They dominated in the first period but in the second half we came into the match and it became an exciting, end-to-end encounter right through extra time too. It could have gone either way, so it was a fair result,” said Abreu of a match that finished 1-1 after 120 minutes.
Yet it could so easily have ended 2-1 to the Black Stars, who would have become the first African side to reach the semi-finals of a FIFA World Cup, had Gyan’s last-gasp penalty gone in. “Those were incredibly anxious moments,” said a player with club experience in his homeland, Argentina, Mexico, Spain, Greece, Israel and Brazil. “We’d worked so hard to get to that point so to have conceded in the 120th minute, when there’s no time to respond, would have been very hard to swallow.”
However, the Rennes forward’s miss gave the two-time world champions a penalty shoot-out lifeline, where Uruguay held their nerve to book a last-four encounter against the Netherlands on 6 July. “I don’t always take penalties like that, I save that for special moments,” said El Loco, whose decisive penalty in Botafogo’s Rio state final win over Flamengo was converted in the same irreverent way.
“Besides, I’d been watching their keeper and I saw that he was diving before the penalty taker struck the ball. Given that a place in the semi-finals was at stake I didn’t think he was likely to stand still. Normally you’ve got so much adrenaline pumping that you aim for one side or the other, but I took it with confidence and, thank God, we were the ones celebrating.”
“I wouldn’t say that it was a crazy decision, it was just a goal,” said coach Oscar Tabarez. “In my view the way he took it showed his class, his quality. The people who criticise him wouldn’t be brave enough to do what he did.” His unorthodox methods thus vindicated by his coach and the team’s last-four berth, what next for Abreu? “I don’t want this dream, or is it reality, to end. But the scenes that we’ve witnessed from back in Uruguay tell you that what we’re doing isn’t normal or run-of-the-mill. We deserve to be in the last four and we’re right in the frame now. And that’s where we want to stay.”