Staying at the top will not be easy for Uruguay's battlers

In fact, it is quite possible that Uruguay, beaten 3-2 by Netherlands in Tuesday's semifinal, might not even qualify for the next World Cup in neighbouring Brazil in 2014, given the difficulties they face.

Some pundits have sneered at Uruguay, pointing out that they beat Ghana in the quarterfinals after Luis Suarez stopped a goalbound shot with his hand on the line, but there has been much to admire as they hugely exceeded expectations.

Although Uruguay won the World Cup twice back in the early days of the tournament in 1930 and 1950, the country today can barely support a professional league. Few first division matches attract more than a couple of thousand fans and many of the stadiums would not be considered fit for even semi-professional football in many European countries.

Penarol and Nacional, who once dominated the South American Libertadores Cup, are no longer feared on the continent and Uruguayan clubs won the last of their eight titles back in 1988.

The only way out for most young Uruguayan players is the airport. The lucky few end up in Europe but the country also exports dozens to Mexico, Argentina, Chile, Peru and Colombia. Coach Oscar Tabarez, who also led the Celeste to the second round at the 1990 World Cup, sees his players only a few times a year.

He says that European countries are snapping up Uruguayan players at an ever-younger age, sometimes in their mid-teens, and although the country produces players at an impressive rate, it does not have the chance to develop them.

With competition in South America so intense, just getting to Brazil in four years’ time will once again be a huge challenge. “The qualifiers are torture, the finals are a party,” said Tabarez.

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