SAO PAULO – It’s not often you see grown men weep in public. Let alone a half dozen wrapped in flags and wearing electric blue wigs.
But the World Cup isn’t like anything else I’ve ever witnessed, four years (or 48 if you’re English) of emotion boiled down to three 90-minute torture chambers. On Thursday at Arena Corinthians, Uruguay’s Luis Suárez manned the rack, turning the crank unmercifully to, with help from Costa Rica on Friday, boot England from the tournament by a 2-1 scoreline.
It was one of those nights that promised to be epic, then somehow over-delivered.
In a sign of what was to come, Uruguay fans packed the bars in the neighborhood of Vila Madalena the night before, wearing the same sky blue-and-white getups that filled the stadium the next day. They hammed for cameras. They made a ruckus. Basically, it was a test run for gameday.
Five hours before kick off, in the sleepy neighborhood of Higienópolis, where the US media hotel is located, my feverish typing was interrupted by singing that seemed to be coming in from underneath the door. Only my room is six floors up and on the back side of the building.
Uruguayan genes apparently produce strong lungs.
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At the stadium, the small groups that had traveled the “manageable” 1,200 miles north up the Atlantic coast to São Paulo reached critical mass. Faces were painted, the trademark sun surrounding one eye with the flag’s blue-and-white stripes covering the rest. The flag-to-person ratio, it seemed, was one to one.
As game time approached, La Celeste fans formed mosh pits in the concourses, then streamed into their designated sections so early that the seats that were occupied held nothing but blue and white. Then, after wildly applauding any and every Uruguayan representative who showed their face on the pitch, they boomed out the national anthem.
The full version of "Orientales, la Patria o la Tumba" is around six minutes long, apparently the world’s lengthiest ode to nationalist sentiment. Even chopped down for public consumption, it’s quite the time commitment, not that anyone really minded.
Across from the far more proper Englishmen, who it must be said provided a stirring rendering of “God Save the Queen,” the Uruguay contingent roiled in expectation of what was to come, their tournament on the line after a semifinal run in 2010 and a 2011 Copa América title proved how good they can be.
Briefly, it seemed their plodding backline and overreliance on Suárez and Edison Cavani might be their undoing, Wayne Rooney and the rest of England’s international underachievers making good on their long-discussed but rarely-realized potential.
But then Suárez, a man revered by his countrymen and widely despised by everyone else, did what he tends to do in big games: He stole the show, scoring twice and exhibiting a trademark penchant for drama.
The first came in the 39th minute, a fortunate bounce freeing Nicolas Lodeiro to lead a counterattack that was finished off with typical aplomb by Saurez after Cavani’s cross bypassed the entire English backline. Uruguay’s love affair with their imperfect genius intensified.
Of course, Rooney equalized 35 minutes later, a goal that buoyed the English but turned out to be the stage cue for more Suárez magic.
This time it was his Liverpool teammate who set him up, the ball skimming off Steven Gerrard’s head and into the path of the precognitive Suárez, who made no mistake with the driven finish that kept Uruguay alive. Ever the showman, the bucktoothed one went to his knees in the corner, arms outstretched and eyes to the heavens.
Uruguay rejoiced, even the press corps pumping their fists while simultaneously bellowing their approval. England, meanwhile, chalked up another World Cup choke job. Lest the spotlight turn elsewhere, Suárez made his exit on a stretcher, though of course he was fine when it came time to console Gerrard after the final whistle.
Yet again, South America had humbled Europe in Brazil, and the Uruguayans picked up where they had left off the night before. São Paulo, for the second night running, would be bathed in blue and white.
They danced, they cried tears of joy, they snapped countless photos and they stuck around until the ushers were no longer polite in their requests to vacate the premise. Then they streamed into the chilly night, another chapter written in the decorated career of Uruguay’s national treasure.
The signs said it all: “God save Suárez.”