L.A. fans applaud Uruguay's World Cup

SOUTH EL MONTE, Calif. -- After everything Uruguay has accomplished in South Africa, a pair of disappointments -- losses in the semifinals to the Netherlands and in a terrific third-place battle with Germany -- wasn't about to spoil the mood at Los Angeles' lone "truly Uruguayan" restaurant.

The fans who packed tiny Uruguay Café y Restaurant on Garvey Avenue for Saturday's consolation clash -- many wearing national team jerseys or something else in sky blue, the national color -- would have liked their heroes to have done more, but they were happy with the success they had.

The Celeste came into this World Cup most unfancied. They'd barely scraped through South America's marathon qualifying tournament, had to hold off Costa Rica in Montevideo to claim the last of 32 berths, and were expected, even among many of their countrymen, to lag behind Mexico, France and South Africa in the group stage.

But with Diego Forlan running the attack, Luis Suarez scoring big goals -- and making one massive stop -- Maxi Pereira running rampant on the right flank, a solid backline and a potent midfield, the Uruguayans were the surprise of the tournament, a dark horse that produced stirring performances and nearly went all the way.

"It's the first time we've made it to the semifinals in 40 years," said 18-year-old German Muela of Pico Rivera. Muela tried to watch what he could while taking orders, delivering from the kitchen and running the cash register. "People were expecting us to not even make it past the first round, and look at where we got. I feel a lot of pride. ... We made it this far, and even though we're not going to be champions, we're going to celebrate like champions."

Uruguay Café y Restaurant has had overflow crowds for all of Los Charruas' games, and one of the regulars has been Fernando Velazquez, 44, who like Muela, was born in Montevideo.

"I was 4 years old the last time they made the final four, in 1970 in Mexico," said Velazquez, wearing a jersey with Uruguayan legend Enzo Francescoli's name and number on the back. "This is just great. I really didn't think they were going to do this well. Surprised the hell out of me, I'll tell you that."

Velazquez, who came to Southern California when he was 4, grew up in Glendora but lives in Fontana, and he makes the most of his journeys to South El Monte, visiting his parents beforehand. They watched at home.

"My mom is such a fan," he said. "Sometimes she can't even watch it. She has to turn off the TV and walk away."

Uruguay provided its fans lots of tense moments. It went scoreless with France in its opener, scored two late goals to pull away in a tight game against South Africa, beat Mexico 1-0 to win Group A, then disposed of South Korea on Suarez's late, great strike.

Then came the Ghana clash, the most dramatic encounter of the Cup. The teams were even deep into overtime, and the Black Stars, with all of Africa behind them, were set to win. But Suarez, standing on the goal line, fisted out Dominic Adiyiah's header in stoppage time -- drawing a red card and giving Ghana a penalty kick.

"Oh my God," Velazquez said. "Once Suarez hit the ball and they got a penalty shot, I was 95 percent sure they were going to make the goal."

Asamoah Gyan put his spot kick off the crossbar, the final whistle blew, and Uruguay prevailed in the penalty-kick shootout.

"Coming off that one, we thought we were going to win [the World Cup]," said Debru Petrov, 37, of Pasadena, whose family is from Uruguay. "We had high expectations. We gave it our all."

Said Muela, who left Uruguay when he was 10: "The truth is ever since the second game, when we beat South Africa, I was hoping Uruguay would go all the way. I had high expectations for them."

Some called Suarez a cheat, but had he not used his hands to stop Adiyiah's shot, Uruguay would have been finished.

"That's not cheating," Velazquez said. "That's just stopping the ball from going in. You get a red card and you get a penalty. Period. End of conversation."

It made Suarez a hero in the cafe, and in Uruguay, but the Celeste could not capitalize. They lost to the Dutch in the semis, and they let a 2-1 lead, built on Forlan's goal six minutes into the second half, disappear against the Germans. Defensive mistakes played into Marcell Jansen's 56th-minute equalizer and Sami Khedira's winner in the 82nd minute.

"It's a shame we lost," said Javier Wang, 21, who moved from Montevideo to Santa Barbara in 2006. "It was the referee. That's why we lost."

Some might argue. Velasquez thinks Uruguay didn't do a good enough job with the ball in the second half.

"We kind of gave the ball away," he said. "When [Germany] scored, we kind of went into shock. They had all the momentum. ... But it was a good game. You could tell it mattered to the players. Especially Uruguay."

Uruguay once was champion. It won the gold medal at the 1924 and 1928 Olympics -- considered the world championship at the time -- and claimed the trophy in the first two World Cups it entered, in 1930 and 1950.

"What the team has shown to the world is that we have a great team, we prepared for this," Petrov said. "You have to remember that we went way back in history, and we were the first ones to win the World Cup. We still have it within us to win, and we wanted to go all the way.

"But the next four years [in Brazil], we'll be there."

Scott French is author of the Football Futbol Soccer blog on ESPNLosAngeles.com.