CAPE TOWN, South Africa — No nation has stood as tall as the Netherlands at this World Cup.
Even with superstar wing Arjen Robben ailing at the outset, the Dutch sailed through their first-round matches with ease. Then they beat Slovakia to reach the quarterfinals, where they erased an early deficit to stun worshippers of the beautiful game, and themselves, by upsetting five-time champion Brazil.
And now, the Oranje stand alone: The sole team among 32 to win every match it has played.
So Monday, Dutch coach Bert van Marwijk was peppered with questions about how to avoid the letdowns of 1974 and '78, when they lost back-to-back finals. And defender Giovanni van Bronckhorst was asked whether he preferred to meet Spain or Germany in Sunday's final.
One small matter was overlooked in this, of course.
It's the small country of Uruguay, the Netherlands' opponent in today's semifinal and, as such, the final hurdle before the Dutch reach the Sunday final that so many Orange-clad fans, and many prognosticators, have decided is a foregone conclusion.
And that's precisely the biggest challenge for the Netherlands, van Marwijk warned.
"When we do well, we tend to become a bit arrogant," van Marwijk confessed, referring to Friday's 2-1 triumph over Brazil and the smugness and complacency that often follows great sporting achievements. "I think our players have understood this."
While Uruguay has a population of just 3.5 million to the Netherlands' 16 million, it boasts two things the Dutch do not: A pair of World Cup trophies, from the 1930 inaugural and 1950.
They are faded, to be sure — the stuff of history books to La Celeste's current generation and even to their parents. But that legacy lives on in grainy black-and-white photographs and has weighed heavily on every national team since.
Uruguay was the last country to qualify for this World Cup, squeaking in after a playoff against Costa Rica.
Few would have predicted that the Uruguayans would be the last South American squad left, outlasting powers Brazil and Argentina. But they've gone far on the late-game heroics of striker Diego Forlan, 31, who has four goals in this tournament. And they've gone far on their vaunted and slightly mystical fighting spirit, known as garra charrua.
"The Netherlands have a great team with great players, but we need to believe in our chances," said Oscar Tabarez, Uruguay's respected coach. "There's hope, and we have to hold on that."
Especially after Friday's handball-aided quarterfinal victory over Ghana. Uruguay will be without suspended forward Luis Suarez, perpetrator of that controversial, goal-saving handball, and defender Jorge Fucile, who sits out after accumulating two yellow cards in the tournament.
The Netherlands must cope without suspended Nigel De Jong and Gregory Van Der Wiel (yellow cards) and deal with carrying surging expectations.
"The euphoria at home is massive at the moment, and maybe it's good that we're so far away and can't witness it because we really need to focus on Uruguay, and that won't be easy," van Marwijk said. "They didn't reach the semifinal for nothing, so we have to really focus again and not think that we're already there."
|Uruguay 2||Germany 4|
|Uruguay 1||Germany 4|
|South Korea 1||England 1|
|4-2 in shootout||Uruguay||Germany|
|United States 1||Argentina 3|
|Extra time||Ghana 1||Argentina 0|
2:30 p.m., Ch. 28
|2:30 p.m. today, ESPN||2:30 p.m. Wednesday, ESPN|
|Netherlands 2||Paraguay 0|
|Netherlands 2||Paraguay 0||5-3 in shootout|
|Slovakia 1||Japan 0|
2:30 p.m. Saturday,
|Brazil 3||Spain 1|
|Brazil 1||Spain 1|
|Chile 0||Portugal 0|