Lifestyle & Belief

The "little country that could" didn't


[Editor's note: This article was updated late Wednesday to note Argentina's 1-0 win over Uruguay in the World Cup qualifier in Montevideo.]

BOSTON — If Americans recall the 1950 World Cup at all, it is because of the greatest upset in American soccer history, glorified in the 2005 film “The Game of Their Lives”: United States 1, England 0.

But in the wider soccer universe, the ’50 World Cup in Brazil was far more memorable for the dramatic upset in the finals.

It was the first post-World War II World Cup, deliberately distant from the dying grounds of Europe, and most everybody expected it to be a coronation of Brazilian soccer. Brazil had built the Maracana stadium in Rio, the biggest in the world, as a fitting stage for the celebration.

Brazil and Argentina may have dominated the continent for decades now, but back then South American soccer was a triumvirate that included Uruguay, the tiniest of all the South American competitors. Uruguay is about the size of Oklahoma and its entire population, about 3.5 million, is only about a quarter that of Argentina’s capital, Buenos Aires.

Still, having won the gold medals in soccer at both the 1924 and 1928 Olympics, Uruguay had been asked to host the very first World Cup, in 1930. And in that ’30 final, it beat its neighbor, Argentina, 4-2.

Twenty years later, the Uruguayan team was still a rugged outfit, though it clung to outdated formations and offensive thrusts that seldom got more sophisticated than the give-and-go. Brazil represented the game’s new wave, a weaving attack — a samba dance — that dazzled fans and left opponents breathless.

Uruguay had emerged, just barely, from the four-team, round-robin semi-finals by tying Spain 2-2, then nipping Sweden 3-2. Brazil had ravaged the same two European teams, 7-1 over Sweden and 6-1 over Spain.

A crowd, officially announced at 199,854, crammed into the Maracana and the victory party was expected to rival Carnival. Brazil did score the first goal, but not until early in the second half. And Uruguay would answer twice, the game-winner grazing the keeper’s outstretched hands before silencing the stadium.

From the heights of 1950, Uruguayan soccer would begin its slow fade. The team still made it to the semis in ’54, losing to Hungary, and again in ’70 when it lost to West Germany. But Uruguay hasn’t been to a World Cup in two decades, since 1990 when it failed to get out of the first round.

On Wednesday, the final day of South American qualification for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, in its capital city of Montevideo, Uruguay tried — but failed — to recapture some of that past glory at the expense of mighty Argentina. Diego Maradona's team booked its place at next summer's World Cup finals after substitute Mario Bolatti hit a late winner, ending Uruguay's hopes of snatching automatic qualification for South Africa.

Uruguay has long considered neighboring Argentina its great rival; after all, Montevideo, is a mere 150 miles away, across the Rio de la Plata, from Buenos Aires. But Argentines regard soccer superpower Brazil as its only worthy rival and most don’t remember Uruguay as anything more than a second-rank team and an occasional pest on the soccer field.

Uruguay could have been the pest that took the final bite out of Argentina’s very foundation. Despite a star-studded lineup led by Lionel Messi whom many regard as the best player in the world today, Argentina had staggered through the qualification rounds. While Brazil, Paraguay and Chile have already punched their tickets for South Africa, Argentina had only the most tenuous hold on the fourth and final South American berth in the 2010 Cup.

It sat just one point ahead of Uruguay and only two ahead of Ecuador. But now it has claimed the fourth spot, leaving Uruguay with only a backdoor shot at reaching South Africa, by beating either Honduras or Costa Rica in a two-game playoff.

Had Argentina lost, it would have been an epic failure, one that would dwarf all the rest of Argentina’s sobering news about economic woes and the first couple’s power grabs.

And Uruguay is certainly the little country that could; in eight home games, it has lost only once — to still-mighty Brazil. The ascension of Argentina’s legendary star, Maradona, to national coach had failed to inspire the team, adding only confusion to its performances. Argentina barely staved off disaster Saturday in Buenos Aires when it scored in the final seconds of extra time for an uninspiring 2-1 victory over Peru, the bottom team on the South American ladder.

It needed this result on the road, in Uruguay, where Argentina has won only once in eight contests. It has been even shakier away from home since Maradona took over, three straight losses in which it has been outscored 9-1.

A World Cup without Argentina seemed almost unimaginable. Then again, once upon a time they said that about Uruguay too.