The sky over Montevideo's monumental Estadio Centenario was light blue, reflecting the colour of its seats and of the national side, as Uruguay took on Holland. Billed as the clash between the world’s smallest football titans, this was not just another friendly match.
At stake was a lot of prestige and the Copa Confraternidad Antel, awarded by Uruguay’s main telecom giant, to the winner of the repeat last year’s World Cup semi-final, in which Holland emerged victorious 3-2.
“That was the best match of the tournament and should have been the final. What followed (Holland vs Spain) was the ugliest World Cup final ever played,” says Stelio Haniotis, university lecturer in Montevideo and lover of the game.
Like many of his countrymen, he chose not to attend Wednesday’s friendly because of its peculiar timing, 3:30 pm on a working day, and because of the average price of a ticket: around 20 euros. He would have liked to take his kids to the match, but that would have been too costly.
The absence of a capacity crowd took away some of the home advantage. Uruguay hadn't lost a confrontation with a European team at the Centenario Stadium for two decades.
“Uruguay are a strong team, quick on the ball, with three fast and lethal strikers. What they seem to be lacking is what other top-ranking teams like Holland have, and that’s basic patterns of play. Keeping the ball in possession for instance, letting it circulate, before launching an attack . It’s very much kick and rush, hit and miss here.”
In his view, even this depleted Dutch side are very coherent. Oranje missed six key players, including goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg, captain Mark van Bommel and playmakers Wesley Sneijder and Rafael van der Vaart. When told that Holland have 11 players from as many teams, Dr Haniotis says at least the basic structure is solid.
Much of the first half appeared to prove his point, with the Dutch having most possession and Uruguay focusing on a guick counter-attack. A dirty foul by the Uruguyan skipper on Van Persie - for which the Argentinian referee Nestor Pittana should have shown red - opened up the game after 30 minutes.
It triggered a flurry of chances on both sides, with Uruguayan striker Luis Suárez presenting the gravest danger, says William van Deelen, a hard-core Holland fan. Van Deelen was one of the double dozen Dutch die-hards who crossed the Atlantic to watch Oranje play. “The half-time score should have been two-nil for Holland, if only Ibrahim Afellay and Klaas Jan Huntelaar had been able to get the ball past the goalkeeper.”
“Uruguay played well, and perhaps, the Suárez goal just before the interval shouldn’t have been disallowed,” Haniotis said. But he had to admit that it was hard for the linesman and the referee to judge whether it was really offside.
All in all, it was an interesting, flowing game, which continued to excite the crowd during the second half. The only thing lacking were the goals. But that was remedied ten minutes ahead of playing time when Suárez tucked in a goal clearance from inside the box.
Dirk Kuyt scored the equaliser, heading the ball into the net in injury time, forcing a decision through a penalty shootout. Uruguay did the better job, scoring four goals to the Netherlands three, thus clinching the Copa Antel.
"The two goals were gifts from above, from the blue skies," Dr Haniotis said poetically. William van Deelen thought the equaliser meant justice, because "victory would have been more than Uruguay deserved.
Holland manager Bert van Marwijk agreed that Holland could, and perhaps should, have won. Van Marwijk said his side faced adverse conditions in Uruguay, like a new type of ball he’d never seen before, a poor pitch and a ref “who acted as if he would never let us win.”
Whereas the Paraguayan referee of the Brazil game, Carlos Amarilla, was “top class”, his Argentinean counterpart in the second match, Nestor Pittana, was “biased against us.”
“He should have off the Uruguyan captain for his reckless challenge which could have broken both Robin van Persie’s legs.”
To escape the volcanic ash cloud drifting into Uruguay from Patagonia, the Dutch brought forward their return flight to Brazil by one day. On Thursday, they’ll take the plane back to Amsterdam. The team were bussed to the airport right after the match. Many players only have two weeks holiday, starting straight after their transatlantic trip.
Uruguay 1- Holland 1
Goals: Luis Suarez 82", Dirk Kuyt 91"
Holland starting line-up:
1-Tim Krul; 2-Khalid Boulahrouz, 3-John Heitinga (C); 4-Joris Mathijsen, 5-Erik Pieters; 6-Nigel de Jong; 8-Kevin Strootman; 12-Ibrahim Afellay; 9-Robin van Persie; 11-Dirk Kuyt; 7-Klaas Jan Huntelaar
Uruguay starting line-up:
1-Fernando Muslera; 2-Diego Lugano (c); 3-Diego Godín; 22-Martin Cáceres; 16-Maximiliano Pereira; 17-Egidio Arévalo Rios; 18-Gaston Ramirez; 6-Diego Perez; 9-Luis Suárez; 10-Diego Forlan; 11-Edinson Cavani