Historically, Uruguayan sides have always been known for their gutsiness and fighting spirit. A football-crazy nation with a population of under four million, Uruguay have achieved some extraordinary feats through sheer hard work and determination, not least the unforgettable Maracanazo, when they beat Brazil in the 1950 FIFA World Cup™ Final. Now, almost 60 years later, the Charruas have another accomplishment in their sights: direct qualification to a FIFA World Cup finals for the first time since 1989.
Under the patient guidance of Oscar Tabarez, the Celeste have bounced back from a surprise defeat in Peru to record nail-biting wins over Colombia and Ecuador. The upshot of Diego Forlan's 93rd minute winner at altitude in Quito is that direct qualification for South Africa is now entirely in their own hands.
"I don't know where I got the energy to take that penalty. It was no easy task," said Atletico Madrid striker Forlan, one of the survivors from Korea/Japan 2002. "It was difficult because it was the last minute and it was so critical. I was completely shattered but I couldn't afford to miss. It was a huge relief to see the ball hit the back of the net as I knew we'd got the three points we came for," he concluded.
"Many people thought it would be impossible to win in Quito, but we showed that with hard work and dedication, anything is possible. Ecuador rarely threatened, and only scored because of a defensive slip-up on our part," added Tabarez, who also coached Uruguay at the 1990 FIFA World Cup Italy.
Uruguay are up to fifth, a point behind their final opponents, Argentina. A win over Diego Maradona's side will see the Charruas secure automatic qualification for South Africa 2010, while any other result will leave them depending on Chile not losing to Ecuador in Santiago so that Uruguay may once more clinch a play-off berth.
For Tabarez, El Maestro, "Today we did more than win a game. We won the right to have qualification in our own hands. Playing against Argentina will be extremely difficult. Not many people thought we could win two games in a row, and yet here we are. Now we're going for our third. The team will rise to the challenge."
The morning after the match, the Uruguayan press was brimming with hope and eagerly awaiting Wednesday's crucial clash against their neighbours and rivals from across the River Plate. "The dream is alive", "There's still life", and "Victory and resurrection" were the headlines in papers like El Observador and El País, which stressed that the Celeste "are one win away from the World Cup."
Beating Argentina will be no easy task though, as the visitors will arrive on a high after their last-gasp win over Peru in Buenos Aires. For goalkeeper Fernando Muslera, who won his first cap against Ecuador, "it'll be a tough game, but we'll have the crowd on our side so we'll try to use that to our advantage."
"We're in a unique position, within one win of the World Cup. We'll be playing in our home stadium in front of our own supporters. I have total faith in my team," agreed Tabarez.
Uruguay will want the Centenario stadium to become a cauldron for this vital match, just as it was in the Final of the 1930 FIFA World Cup when the home side overcame the Albiceleste 4-2. Will history be repeated 79 years on? Will this be Uruguay's first qualifying campaign without a play-off in this decade? All will be revealed on Wednesday.