CAPE TOWN, South Africa -- There they sat in the stands, the villains. It was easy to pick them out in Green Point Stadium on Tuesday night, even from a distance, and even though they were vastly outnumbered. They were the small pockets of light blue amid the bubbling, heaving bright orange sea. They were the Uruguayans.
There was never much of a chance that the demographic distribution among fans at a World Cup semifinal between the Netherlands and Uruguay in Cape Town would have played out any differently. Not when the Netherlands has a population that is nearly five times larger than that of their South American counterparts -- 16.5 million to 3.5 million, approximately. Not when KLM operates a daily non-stop flight between Amsterdam-Schiphol Airport and Cape Town International -- board at 10:25 AM, sit there for eleven and a half hours and you're there -- while the journey from Montevideo is an altogether longer and pricier affair, involving connections and long layovers in Buenos Aires and Sao Paolo and such. And not, most of all, when South Africa has been the home to people of Dutch extraction for more than three-and-a-half centuries -- there are now about three million Afrikaners living here -- whereas you'd have trouble filling a braai with South Africans of Uruguayan descent.
Uruguay might have attracted some additional casual supporters -- or at least some fans who wouldn't have very much minded had they won, as they were the tournament's only remaining underdog (something like 66 to 1 heading in) and the only non-European-power at that -- if not for the way by which it prevailed in last Friday's quarterfinal match against Ghana. It wasn't just that they eliminated Africa's last hope. It was that they did it in a way that everyone here classifies, unquestionably, as cheating, even though many foreigners (including myself and my colleague Joe Posnanski) aren't so sure about that. When Luis Suarez used his hands to on the goal line bat away Dominic Adiyiah's last-second, surely game-winning header, Uruguay became the bad guys here. When it won the match on penalty kicks, it became the embodiment of soccer evil. The result was that rarely has the distribution of support at a supposedly neutral-site athletic competition been more lopsided than it was on Tuesday night.
(I found, in fact, just one contingent of non-Uruguayans who was pulling for Uruguay: a group of people who entered the stadium with Iranian flags draped over their shoulders. "We are supporting Uruguay because they won the first World Cup, in 1930," said one of them, Amir Irani, 30. Was that really the reason? No, Irani admitted, after consulting his family. "More important is that they are not European.")
Still, the Uruguayans who were in attendance were not apologetic, in their words or in their bearing. "We are legally in the semifinals," said Valentin Sorhuet, a 26-year-old accountant who arrived in town on Sunday after a nearly 24-hour, two-stop trip from Montevideo. "He, Suarez, he touched the ball with his hand, and the ref gave him a red card. The rules were applied. It's very different than Maradona in `86." Sorhuet had at home heard that perhaps 3,000 of the 66,005 seats in Green Point Stadium would be filled by his fellow supporters. "All the African people are angry at us, because first we beat South Africa and then Ghana," he said. "We are not the favorite, but we like that because the pressure is on the Netherlands. We feel comfortable in that situation -- we are a very small country, so we're used to being outnumbered. We were in the minority against France, and South Africa, and Mexico and Ghana -- South Korea, I don't know -- and here we are."
Holland fans felt comfortable, too, buoyed by their numbers -- and they wore orange jumpsuits, orange scarves, orange wigs, orange ties and a variety of other orange paraphernalia, thereby proving once and for all that neon orange does not look particularly appealing next to light blue -- and by the team they had drawn as their opponent. "We're actually quite happy playing Uruguay," said Alexander Marcic, 40, a Dutchman who is married to a South African. "First of all, there's so much hate for them because they beat South Africa and then cheated Ghana. Second, we rated Ghana quite a bit higher than Uruguay. They have been extremely lucky, and now they're running out of luck. It's a huge disadvantage for Uruguay to play without [the suspended] Suarez -- he was the top scorer in Holland [this past season, when he scored 35 goals in 33 appearances for Amsterdam's Ajax], and he knows all the Dutch players. It's the best draw ever." Marcic added that if an Uruguayan fan dared blow a vuvuzela in his direction, the horn would be deposited in a place that would make the flight home to Montevideo a rather unpleasant one.
As the game wore on, there remained little doubt as to which side was favored in the stadium, even as the Uruguayans desperately waved their flags and beat their drums. When Holland captain Gio Van Bronckhorst struck his remarkable 17th minute laser from 35 yards, all that was audible was roaring. When Uruguay star Diego Forlan -- perhaps the most impressive and most singularly valuable player of this tournament -- equalized with a straight-on 25-yard strike of his own in the 41st, all anyone could hear were gasps and screams. And from the 70th minute on, when Wesley Sneijder put the Dutch ahead for good, to be followed just three minutes later by a goal from Arjen Robben, bewigged Dutch fans pushed closer and closer to the field, certain of what was next, and chants of "HUP HOLLAND HUP!" rang out again and again. The blue sections, few though they were, turned quiet. No flags waved anymore, and no drums were banged.
When it was over, after a final minute that was tenser than expected because of Maxi Pereira's 92nd-minute goal that made the ultimate score 3-2, not one of the Holland fans appeared to leave for at least a quarter of an hour, as their side did an extended victory lap around the field. The scene in Johannesburg, where the Netherlands will on Sunday try to capture their first World Cup against either Spain or Germany, will likely be heavily tinged with orange, though less so than Tuesday night's. Some fans of Uruguay -- the side that became the unlikeliest of villains in this tournament -- might travel to the third-place game in Port Elizabeth on Saturday to see if their nation will capture its third-ever top-three finish. They will then embark on the long trip back to Montevideo. At least, one hopes, it will be pleasant.