By Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 7, 2010; D01
CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA -- As a first-time host of soccer's grand spectacle, Africa opened the 2010 World Cup with tremendous good will showered upon its six qualifying teams.
By the quarterfinals, South America had emerged as the tournament's dominant player, with four of its five squads among the last eight.
But Tuesday at Cape Town Stadium, the Netherlands did its part in restoring Europe as the leading actor in the World Cup, defeating an undermanned but resilient squad from Uruguay, 3-2, in the first of the tournament's two semifinals to guarantee an all-European final.
The Netherlands will face either Spain, the 2008 European champion, or three-time World Cup champion Germany, for the sport's most coveted trophy Sunday at Johannesburg's Soccer City Stadium. The loser of Wednesday's semifinal in Durban will face Uruguay in the third-place match Saturday in Port Elizabeth.
Dutch soccer fans erupted in cheers, song and ear-splitting vuvuzela blasts when Wesley Sneijder, their most prolific scorer, struck the 70th-minute goal that reclaimed the lead after a tense first half ended in a 1-1 deadlock.
Once the victory was official following a spirited surge by Uruguay, which scored to make it a one-goal game during stoppage time, a throng estimated at 40,000 to 50,000 erupted anew in Amsterdam's Museum Square, where Dutch supporters watched the proceedings on massive outdoor screens. Almost immediately, according to news reports, KLM, the nation's major airline, announced the addition of three extra flights to Johannesburg for the weekend's final.
Tuesday's victory sends the Netherlands to the World Cup final for the first time since 1978. And that history, and the defeats that resulted in 1974 and 1978, came immediately to mind for Coach Bert van Marwijk as his players celebrated their feat.
"It's quite something we achieved after 32 years," van Marwijk said afterward. "The thing is: We're not there yet. There is going to be one more match."
Tuesday's outcome surprised few. The Netherlands is the only team in the World Cup that has yet to lose a match, its record is now 6-0-0.
And it disappointed fewer still in Africa, where hostility toward Uruguay still lingered four days after Luis Suarez's controversial handball blocked a shot that would have sent Ghana, the continent's last standing team, to the semifinals.
Cape Town shopkeepers and taxi drivers were more than happy to talk about Uruguay's lack of fair play and the injustice that resulted in the days that followed. The local newspapers' letters-to-the-editor sections were filled with indignant commentary, as well.
Uruguay went on to defeat Ghana on penalty kicks. But with Suarez suspended for the flagrant foul, La Celeste lacked a critical piece of its offense against the Netherlands. And Coach Oscar Tabarez conceded as much in advance, acknowledging that Uruguay entered the match "with modest hope and enormous faith."
Much of that faith rested on veteran striker Diego Forlán, who wore the captain's armband and did his best to lead Uruguay against the favored Dutch.
The match got off to a measured start, with each squad taking the pulse of the other given that 30 years had elapsed since the nations played each other.
The Netherlands struck first, 18 minutes in, with Giovanni van Bronckhorst sending a left-footed rocket from 35 yards out. It was an audacious attempt. But the ball was brilliantly fired, flying just past the outstretched mitt of goalkeeper Fernando Muslera into the upper right corner of the back of the net.
Forlán replied in kind, scoring the tying goal at the 41st minute from an equally preposterous distance. But Forlán alone was no match for the Netherlands' height, depth and skill -- particularly with the Dutch finding their more fluid, creative form after Sneijder put them ahead, 2-1, in the second half.
Tabarez stated unequivocally that Sneijder was offside and the goal, as a result, should not have counted.
"But there is no point in weeping and looking for excuses," Tabarez said. "We tried, but we didn't achieve it."
The Dutch fans who dominated the crowd of 62,479 at Cape Town Stadium were still celebrating Sneijder's goal when the towering Arjen Robben flicked in a header to make it 3-1.
As the minutes ticked down, Tabarez pulled Forlán from the lineup, explaining afterward that his star forward had developed an injury.
Roughly two minutes into stoppage time, Maximiliano Pereira scored for Uruguay, instantly turning a rout into a clock-watching nail-biter. But with Forlán on the bench, Uruguay had limited options and, as it turned out, no time.