Natal, Brazil: Victory, even in the group stage of the World Cup, can make Uruguayans feel like champions again. (Luis Suarez, the Hand, Mouth and Foot of God)
After the closing 10 minutes against Italy on Tuesday - 10 minutes in which all fans of the diminutive republic were on tenterhooks for a 1-0 victory - the cheers rang out. Renditions of "Soy Celeste ... Celeste Soy Yo!" ("I'm sky blue ... Sky blue, I am!") were followed by the ubiquitous chants of winning the World Cup again (just like the first time, in 1930).
There was much swinging of the national shirt.
Uruguayans have been here before. It seems to be their preferred state, winning against the odds. La garra charrua (the Charrua claw) remains alive and well. That spirit of the Uruguayan national team - Los Charruas - allows it to snatch victory in the face of overwhelming defeat. (Though it seems disingenuous to be identified with those seminomadic Charrua Indians, the last of whom were betrayed and vanquished in 1832, leaving the country without any semblance of an indigenous culture.)
On the back of its fourth-place finish at the last World Cup and the 2011 Copa America title, Uruguay entered this tournament as favorites to win its group. This did not sit well with the culture of the team, which had ceded the underdog label to Costa Rica. After its 3-1 defeat against the Ticos, Uruguay looked dead and buried. But then soccer is made for escapes such as these.
If a nation is going to make a habit out of such unlikely maneuvers, it needs its own Houdini. In the brilliant but mercurial Luis Suarez, Uruguay has one. The man from Salto is undoubtedly one of the most talented players the country has produced. But what helps set him apart from other, equally talented players who have pulled on Uruguay's sky blue shirt is his winning mentality.
"He leaves his life and soul on the soccer pitch," said Jose; Luis Villamil, 44, an engineer who made the trip from Montevideo to Natal. "He just wants to win."
In England, where Suarez is adored by Liverpool fans, he remains a divisive figure. Why this player of the first rank cannot control himself during the cut and thrust of a soccer match is beyond the British. It goes against a sense of fair play.
Suarez's latest transgression - an apparent bite of Italian defender Giorgio Chiellini's shoulder - is likely to enrage his detractors, and might result in his expulsion from the tournament. Of course, Suarez has a history in such matters. He has missed 17 matches as punishments for similar offenses.
Moreover, the racism charge - he verbally abused Manchester United's Patrice Evra in 2011 - has never been forgotten.
The question is why a player as talented and exciting as Suarez should react in such a way.
Not that the incident cuts any ice with the Uruguayans in Natal. Few could see the incident at close range.
"It doesn't bother me, so long as he isn't suspended," one Montevidean said. Are there any reservations from a sportsmanship perspective? The look is quizzical as if one were directing an insult. "Did you see what the Italians did to us and what they've done in the past?" he said. "This isn't a game for little girls."
There is a certain defensiveness with many fans when asked about Suarez's unseemly tendencies. They seem to take the same obdurate stance as chided children. The usual conspiracy theories emerge, the most fantastic of which is that the puncture marks visible in images of Chiellini's shoulder were Photoshopped. There is an unwillingness to take responsibility. Fans have learned the art of blame transference.
For Uruguayans at home and abroad Suarez remains a hero, a caudillo-like (chieflike) figure. Uruguay remains obsessed with his reputation in Europe, especially in Britain. After all, his reputation has an effect on his country's image abroad more than anyone else's.
Suarez's sacrifice for his country has not been forgotten. The infamous "save" against Ghana in the last World Cup - when he stopped a certain goal with his hand - is seen as an act of love for his country. His recovery from a knee operation allowed him to lead Uruguay to victory last week over the country of his most virulent critics, England. The second goal, of magnificent power, had him carry much of his weight on his operated leg.
Uruguay has now perfected the trait of the underdog: losing against the worst and winning against the best. And Suarez epitomizes the country's fighting spirit; a trait with which he has imbued the whole team.
Uruguay has finally come out fighting, and it suits them. Now they might have to continue the fight without their caudillo.