It was a reluctant Diego Lugano who trudged off the field after only 38 minutes of Uruguay's quarter-final against Ghana on Friday evening. Handing over his armband to Diego Forlan, the injured skipper made way for Andres Scotti and watched the rest of a dramatic evening unfold from the bench.
It was an unaccustomed vantage point for the experienced Fenerbahce central defender, who has been a bulwark of the Celeste line-up since making his international debut in a Germany 2006 qualifying match seven years ago. His sense of dejection was heightened by the importance of the occasion, though Lugano quickly put his personal disappointment to one side to get behind his team and cheer them to the narrowest of victories.
"To watch something like that from the sidelines was almost too much for me," Lugano told FIFA.com afterwards. "You make all those sacrifices to get to a game like this and then to have to come off because someone lands on your knee. You can hardly credit it. The good thing is that I was able to carry on for ten minutes despite the pain, so it can't be too bad. I just need to see how I react to it and give a 1,000 per cent so I can make the semi-final."
The 29-year-old sat out just three of the 20 matches that Uruguay played en route to South Africa, spending more time on the pitch than any of his team-mates (1,530 in all) and scoring four goals in the process, the most important of them in the first leg of the play-off tie against Costa Rica in San Jose. Despite his commitment to the Celeste cause, and his importance to it, Lugano was well aware his unfortunate injury had made him a passenger the team could ill afford to carry. "You need to be mature and put the team first when something like this happens," he said. "There was still a long way to go and me being there gave them a bit of an advantage, and that's just not acceptable at this level. So we spoke to the doctor and the coach and we decided to make the change."
"We knew it was going to be a tough match," he continued, replaying Friday night's events in his mind. "They are strong and they play good football with it." So strong in fact, that the Ghanaians would have won had Asamoah Gyan not missed a penalty in the final minute of extra time, a turn of events triggered by Luis Suarez's handball on the Uruguay goalline.
"Luis has scored a lot of goals in Europe but none of them were as important as the one he saved," said Lugano of the late drama that almost ended Uruguayan hopes. "It was the kind of luck that we haven't had for 60 years, so it was more than welcome."
Lugano's most pressing aim now is to get himself fit in time for next Tuesday's semi-final meeting with the Dutch, though he accepts that the team come first. "I've worked very hard to get this far but we have a fantastic squad, one that's got its feet on the ground and is very mature with it. I'm optimistic about playing but if I can't, then there are plenty of players who have proved they can come in and do my job." Whether he eventually makes it on to the pitch or not, Lugano has maximum respect for the conquerors of Brazil. "We've watched nearly all their games," he said. "They have 11 top-quality players but the people they have up front can all decide games on their own.
"They play an excellent passing game and you can tell they are determined to win the Trophy for the first time for the Netherlands. It's going to be really tough but you don't expect anything else in the semi-finals of the World Cup. I'm staying positive, though, and I'm still dreaming about going all the way."