“Other countries have their history. And Uruguay has its football.” -Ondino Viera, Uruguayan national coach during the 1966 World Cup
On the surface, it appears that among the 4 remaining teams, Uruguay is the minnow, the surprise. No one really expected them to be playing today–some even doubted whether they would advance from their group, given that they were placed with two purported soccer powers in Mexico and France, as well as the host South African side.
But from another perspective, this is a return to the sun for Uruguayan football, after decades spent in the shadows.
Consider that of the remaining semifinalists, Holland and Spain have never won the World Cup (perhaps the two greatest footballing nations never to have won), and while Germany has won 3 times (as West Germany, actually: twice as hosts, in 1954 and 1974, and again in 1990), Uruguay is right behind them, having won twice, in 1930 and 1950.
In 1924 the Uruguay team traveled to Paris to become the first South American team to compete in the Olympic Games. In contrast to the physical style of the European teams of the era, Uruguay played a style based around short passes, and won every game, defeating Switzerland 3–0 in the gold medal match. In the 1928 Summer Olympics Uruguay went to Amsterdam to defend their title, again winning the gold medal after defeating Argentina 2–1 in the final.
Following the double Olympic triumph, Uruguay was chosen as the host nation for the first World Cup, held in 1930, the centenary of Uruguay’s independence. During the World Cup, Uruguay won all its matches, and converted a 1–2 half-time deficit to a 4–2 victory against Argentina at the Montevideo’s Estadio Centenario [in Montevideo].
Picking up the story from Wikipedia:
Due to the refusal of some European teams to participate in the first World Cup, the Uruguayan Football Association urged other countries to reciprocate by boycotting the 1934 World Cup played in Italy. For the 1938 World Cup, France was chosen as host, contrary to a previous agreement to alternate the Championships between South America and Europe, so Uruguay again refused to participate.
Uruguay again won the World Cup in 1950, beating hosts Brazil in one of the biggest upsets in World Cup History. The final was at the Maracanã Stadium in Brazil. Uruguay came from behind to beat the host nation in a match which would become known as the Maracanazo. Many Brazilians had to be treated for shock after the event, such was the surprise of Uruguay’s victory.
That 1950 World Cup is the only time Brazil has ever hosted the World Cup–and despite winning the World Cup five times in the subsequent 60 years, that defeat still looms large in the Brazilian collective psyche:
World Cup success in the past 60 years has been scant for Uruguay. They finished in 4th place in 1954 and again in 1970. But 1970 was the last time they advanced to even the quarterfinals–until this year, that is. After 4 decades in the shadows, Uruguay hopes to reenter the sun of the World Cup finals, and perhaps even a championship, something this country of 3 million has been waiting 60 years for.