Tens of thousands of Uruguayans took to the streets of Montevideo defying freezing weather and polar gusts to cheer and honour the ‘sky blue’ national team which came back from South Africa with a fourth place and striker Diego Forlan with the Golden Ball as the World’s Cup's best player.
The bus with a huge poster reading “Sky-blue pride” left Tuesday before mid day from the team’s concentration complex and thirty kilometres and five hours later reached the huge stage mounted next to the country’s Parliament building where they were received by President Jose Mujica, First Lady Senator Lucia Topolansky, the Senate and Lower House speakers and other top officials.
Whole families (grand parents, parents and children) covered in sky-blue colours, faces painted and waving flags waited, in some case hours, for the bus carrying the players and coach which only managed to move at snail’s pace as the crowd flocked on.
The players surprised by the live and emotional reception waved arms, filmed and in some cases even managed to sign some autographs as the crowd shouted, clapped hands and cheered, “Uruguay, world champions”, “I’m sky blue, the best in the world”.
Many joyous on lookers showed posters praising the courage and dedication of the players and the restored pride for Uruguayan soccer, after so many years: “Thank you for a wonderful performance”, “Boys: your are the greatest in the world”; “I’m proud of being Uruguayan”; “fourth in the World Cup, but first in my heart”; “thank your for such joy”, “Uruguay the country with the highest per capita happiness”.
The big party had been planned for Monday but the chartered aircraft with the team and many fans who managed to take the trip back only arrived past nine o’clock in the evening so the celebration was postponed for Tuesday.
Nevertheless President Mujica and top Uruguayan officials waited to congratulate the players and coach Oscar Tabarez at the Carrasco airport.
The team which left Montevideo a month ago with not much expectations after a last minute qualifier against Costa Rica in the Americas round finally managed to be among the top four of the 2010 Cup and only lost the bronze medal to Germany in one of the best matches seen in South Africa.
Uruguay with a long history of soccer tradition: 1924 and 1928 Olympics champions; 1930, first World Soccer Cup played in Montevideo; again in 1950 in Brazil, since then only managed a fourth place in 1954, 1970 and now forty years later.
For the 3.5 million Uruguayans, South Africa means the recovery of the long lost pride and a return to the world’s soccer elite. Uruguay was the only South American team to make it to the semi-finals: Brazil’s Dunga and Argentina’s Maradona were knocked out by Holland and Germany.
“We never expected the boys would get so far. They have been wonderful, they’ve shown us it can be done: next time we’ll bring back the Cup”, said Lorena, 17 year old who cheered the bus with other friends their faces painted blue, white, yellow the colours of the flag.
“We skipped school to come, but we couldn’t miss this great event. I’m freezing but I don’t care”, said Mirtha and Florence.
A Fire department unit opened the way for the bus that was followed by a several kilometres long caravan of vehicles, which had to be cut off on reaching the proximity of Parliament because of the huge crowd assembled waiting next to the stage.
President Mujica on receiving the delegation at the stage praised the players as “daring and brave” examples to the rest of the world for which “we are forever grateful”.
“This is a manifestation of unity, of the Uruguayan people united, no class distinctions, no politics, just glued together next to the sky-blue flag and this we owe it to you”, said Mujica who added “in the name of the Uruguayan people, thank you, thank you”.
“This spontaneous and joyous turnout is the celebration dedicated by this wonderful people to you boys, young fellows who have filled us of pride, commitment and have shown us that where there’s a strong will, there’s a way to reach our objective”, underlined the Uruguayan president. You have given us a lesson in courage and given us the hope to dream.
Diego Lugano the team captain thanked the people for turning out and said he felt overwhelmed by such demonstrations of care and support.
“We knew you always supported us, but we never had an idea of this, no words can describe it: we are receiving far more than what we deserve. What we brought back was not the World Cup, we just missed it, but it’s dedicated to you”, said Lugano.
He then underlined that without the unity, friendship and respect the group displayed at all moments “we could have never achieved what we did. However let’s not take this as a feat, but rather as an obligation for future competitions: whoever has the sky-blue vest on must return with pride and convinced that he has done his utmost best”.
“Let’s hope all this helps to give soccer and sports the significance it deserves. Let’s hope that all the next Forlan, Suarez, Fucile born in Uruguay have the conditions to grow up and return as champions” he ended.
Coach Tabarez, a former school teacher, said he was infinitely grateful to the Uruguayan people for their gratitude and the way they were honouring ‘the boys’.
“We’re surprised, astonished, impacted, moved, but above all grateful, very grateful. These boys earned this reception, but this has gone beyond anything imaginable, there are no words to describe what we have seen here today”.
However he also cautioned that it’s great to celebrate together, “but there’s a message I would like to leave: let us not keep only the successful results as evidence of what has been done. Success is not only results, it’s the difficulties you must overcome to obtain them and the permanent struggle and the spirit to face challenges and the courage to overcome them. Thank you, thank you, thank you very much”.
The best player of the South Africa Cup, Forlan said he was living an unimaginable experience for which he was very grateful. “Having the country united behind you is incredible: this is for you, our supporters and encouragers at all times”.
Forlan also spoke about the best player prize and said “what I won was thanks to them (pointing to the team), to the unity of the group, which is marvellous”.
He recalled that what was achieved was a long process implemented by coach Tabarez: “it was a serious, humble job done with great respect, started several years ago. Even as a small country of only 3.5 million we have successful Uruguayans in all fields the world around, as we have in soccer. It’s all hard work and dedication and my message is that it can be achieved”.
Luis Suarez the striker of “the golden hand” who stopped a decisive goal against Ghana was also praised for his audacity in opening the way for Uruguay’s participation among the best four.
“Nutty” or “Grandpa” Sergio Abreu, the oldest of the team who was also decisive in the way he converted the last penalty kick against Ghana in spite of never having played a full half, proved to be the best speaker.
He begun by saying that he expected the same crowd would be there, or even more, when ‘I run for president’. He went on to thank the wonderful turnout of the people, the support they received at all times, not only in South Africa but also during the even tougher Americas’ qualifier. He also had words of acknowledgement for all players who had started with the team several years ago, some of which never made it, “but without them we wouldn’t be here”.
Finally he joked about the ‘golden boy’ Forlan, Suarez the player who didn’t appeal to the hand of God but rather his ‘own golden hand’, Fucile who was named by the international press for the ideal team based on the Cup’s results, Fernández who postponed his marriage one day because of the celebration (‘you’re all invited’) and last but not least, a prize about which Uruguay was not informed: the best backup number 10 for the best player (Forlan) of the Cup…Sergio Abreu…
The ceremony ended with gold coated medals with the Uruguayan crest and the inscription “From the Uruguayan people to….for his brilliant participation in the South Africa World Cup 2010”, awarded to all fifty members of the delegation, from the players, coach and assistants, medical staff, representative of the Uruguayan Football Association, to the cook and field assistants.
President Mujica, Vice president Astori, Senator Lucia Topolansky took turns in handing out the medals.
According to police estimates over 250.000 people turned out to peacefully cheer and support the Uruguayan national team tour across Montevideo. No incidents were reported, police were only armed with batons and on foot special forces (in simple uniforms) helped at times open the way for the bus with the team.
Helicopters and ground crews filmed the five hours event which was transmitted live in national television to all the country, establishing record ratings.