Ellis Park was awash with the colours of Spain last night, but finding a genuine Spaniard was not as easy as it looked. By reliable estimates no more than 3,000 supporters have made the long trip from the Iberian peninsula down to the foot of Africa to follow La Roja, yet red and yellow were the dominant colours inside and outside the ground.
Vicente Del Bosque's team draw many admirers for their attractive style of football and star names, although 11-year-old Hannah Langman was more specific about the reason why she had donned a red and yellow wig for the night. "It's mostly because of Fernando Torres," said the young South African.
But if Spain were the neutrals' favourites, Paraguay were not without support inside Ellis Park as they sought to continue their ground-breaking run at this FIFA World Cup™. Gonzalo Facca had flown in just hours earlier with a planeload of supporters from South America, though he was realistic about what Paraguay, playing in their first quarter-final, would require. "At this point luck is a very important ingredient," he said. "Perhaps we'll have it tonight, perhaps Spain will play like against Switzerland and a miracle could happen."
We are proud of our team. Football is like that, Spain scored with their only chance.
By half-time hopes of that miracle had risen. Paraguay had held Spain comfortably and even seen a Nelson Valdez goal ruled out for offside. "So far it's gone ok. It's 50-50," said Jose Silguero from Asuncion, who together with his wife and two sons formed part of a small pocket of Paraguayan support seated just a few rows behind their team's bench. They became increasingly animated as the game came to life in the second half. Their spirits soared when Oscar Cardozo won a penalty, but sank when his kick was saved.
Those emotions ran in reverse when Spain were awarded a penalty of their own and Xabi Alonso first scored then saw his retake saved. Up went cries of "Albirroja". Yet David Villa's late winner left Jose with his head sunk in his hands, national flag wrapped round his neck.
Red and yellow flags were now being waved around all four sides of Ellis Park but Jose was back on his feet with his family to applaud Gerardo Martino's teary-eyed players as they made their way towards the tunnel at the finish. "We are proud of our team," he said. "Football is like that, Spain scored with their only chance. If we'd taken advantage of the penalty it might have been a different result."
The sight of Cardozo crumpled on the pitch was a reminder of that pivotal moment yet Jose was looking on the bright side. "Spain were the favourites but we got where we got with hard work – that's the good thing about football, the favourites like Argentina and Brazil are out and Paraguay went out with more dignity than both of those teams, especially Argentina."
We've lifted the curse and now we'll get to the Final. We're going to Durban now and we'll finish off back in Johannesburg.
If Paraguay's historic journey was over, for Spain, the adventure goes on. Outside the ground, Spanish fans sang in front of TV cameras. Maria Eugenia Barrena from Extremadura spoke excitedly about the lifting of a curse, with her national team finally through to the last four for the first time since 1950. She wore a big smile on her face and who could blame her – she was here as one of 11 lucky people who won a competition organised by Coca-Cola and Spanish broadcaster Telecinco to send a group of fans, the so-called 'Once de la Aficion', to follow Spain round South Africa.
"We've lifted the curse and now we'll get to the Final. We're going to Durban now and we'll finish off back in Johannesburg – that's what we’d like, of course, and let's hope it happens." The Spanish bandwagon rolls on – and, on last night's evidence, a growing band of local converts with it.