JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -
The last country to qualify for the World Cup, Uruguay is now hoping to be the last to leave. "We gate-crashed the party, but now we are here we want to keep dancing as long as possible," veteran striker Sebastian Abreu said Sunday.
Uruguay needed a playoff win against Costa Rica in November to reach the tournament but has excelled in South Africa and plays its first semifinal in 40 years on Tuesday against the Netherlands.
"The dream of the guys is getting bigger and bigger and the team is improving day after day," captain Diego Lugano said. "Now we are at the highest level of football and every victory becomes more important."
Few pundits gave the team much chance of progressing from a group containing 2006 runner-up France, host South Africa and a strong Mexico side.
But Uruguay topped the section without conceding a goal and then knocked out South Korea and Ghana.
The team's profile is also growing. At the beginning of the tournament only a handful of journalists followed the team's practices and press conferences in the sleepy town of Kimberley.
Sunday's final briefing in Johannesburg before leaving for the semifinal in Cape Town was attended by hundreds of journalists, photographers and TV cameras - all swarming for a chance to talk to the players.
Getting off the bus at the team's hotel after training, Diego Forlan looked on at the horde of reporters.
"So, you didn't believe in us?" Forlan said with a smile.
Actually, there were few clues that Uruguay - World Cup winner in 1930 and '50 - was about to burst back onto the international scene.
The side finished fifth in the South American qualifiers, which necessitated a two-legged playoff against CONCACAF's No. 4 team, Costa Rica.
A place in the finals was secured with a 1-0 away win and nervous 1-1 draw at home in Montevideo.
Despite the problems, Uruguay is the only team from South America left in the tournament - outlasting traditional powers Brazil and Argentina.
The difficulties in getting to South Africa seem to have fortified the team.
"The qualifying in South America is the strongest and hardest there is," Abreu said. "When four of the quarter-finalists in the World Cup are from this region, that tells you something."
Lugano struggled to explain why the team struggled to get to South Africa in the first place.
"There hasn't been much change," he said. "We are the same players, we have the same mentality of trying to do our best and fighting for the jersey.
"The other thing is that the South American qualifiers are very hard. Argentina struggled to qualify and even Brazil didn't do very well at first."
It's a view shared by midfielder Diego Perez.
"We were the last team to qualify - and we had to play 20 games to get here," Perez said. "Passing through those difficult moments made us stronger and that's been a help as we've progressed. Now we will try to keep going."