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Uruguay back among World Cup elite after 40 years

JOHANNESBURG (AP) — Uruguay has been here before. Just not within memory of any of its players.

The World Cup semifinal against the Netherlands marks a return to the soccer elite for one of South America's most-decorated teams. Uruguay won the World Cup in 1930 and 1950, but last reached a semifinal in 1970, when it finished in fourth place.

"It's beautiful," coach Oscar Tabarez said Saturday. "It's difficult to take in what's happened. We are just very happy."

They had reason to be after a crazy finish to their quarterfinal victory over Ghana on Friday. A desperate Luis Suarez blocked a last-second header at the goal line with his arms and Ghana missed the ensuing penalty — leading to a shootout which Paraguay won, 4-2.

Uruguay hosted the first World Cup, featuring 13 teams from Europe and the Americas, and lifted the trophy with a 4-2 win over Argentina in the final.

The Uruguayans didn't enter the following two editions, held in Italy and France, but showed it was still the best on the planet in the 1950 tournament.

The winner of that World Cup held in Brazil was decided by a final group stage of four teams. The way things worked out, the winner of the final game between the host nation and Uruguay would win the title, and Brazil was expected to cruise to glory at Maracana stadium.

What happened next has become part of soccer folklore.

Brazil took the lead, but Uruguay equalized and Alcides Ghiggia then squeezed a shot past Brazil goalkeeper Moacir Barbosa to win the match.

There were further semifinals for Uruguay in 1954 and 1970, but the team has failed to reach that stage five times since then.

This year's success has come as a surprise — Uruguay finished fifth in the South American qualifiers and needed a playoff win against Costa Rica to earn a trip to South Africa.

Uruguay has still produced quality players — such as Enzo Francescoli, Ruben Sosa and Alvaro Recoba, who all played in Italy's top league — but this year's squad seems to have more depth.

Although striker Diego Forlan has received most of the accolades, Edinson Cavani and Suarez — who is suspended for the Netherlands match because of his handball against Ghana — are both highly rated young forwards, while the defense led by captain Diego Lugano has conceded only two goals in five games.

"I don't know whether this is the rebirth of Uruguayan football," Tabarez said. "It could be as long as we don't go another 20 years or so without getting to this stage."

Tabarez took over the squad four years ago for his second stint in charge. He says the job includes developing the younger age group teams as well working with the national squad.

"In Uruguay, football is a passion," he said. "Children practice lots. There are not many of us but the marvelous thing is that we keep producing great players.

"We've got to make sure we take advantage of that and organize ourselves to keep doing as well as we are now — or better."

Beating the Netherlands on Tuesday in Cape Town won't be an easy task, Tabarez acknowledged.

"It's a very difficult match against the Netherlands," he said. "They haven't lost a game so far, they've got great players and a lot of diversity in their play.

"They will start as the favorites, I think, and it's going to be difficult — difficult, but not impossible."

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