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The "little country that could" didn't

In a World Cup drama, tiny Uruguay tried — but failed — to put Argentina out of its misery.

Argentina's coach Diego Maradona celebrates after his team won its 2010 World Cup qualifier against Uruguay in Montevideo Oct. 14, 2009. Argentina won 1-0. (Andres Stapff/Reuters)

[Editor's note: This article was updated late Wednesday to note Argentina's 1-0 win over Uruguay in the World Cup qualifier in Montevideo.]

BOSTON — If Americans recall the 1950 World Cup at all, it is because of the greatest upset in American soccer history, glorified in the 2005 film “The Game of Their Lives”: United States 1, England 0.

But in the wider soccer universe, the ’50 World Cup in Brazil was far more memorable for the dramatic upset in the finals.

It was the first post-World War II World Cup, deliberately distant from the dying grounds of Europe, and most everybody expected it to be a coronation of Brazilian soccer. Brazil had built the Maracana stadium in Rio, the biggest in the world, as a fitting stage for the celebration.

Brazil and Argentina may have dominated the continent for decades now, but back then South American soccer was a triumvirate that included Uruguay, the tiniest of all the South American competitors. Uruguay is about the size of Oklahoma and its entire population, about 3.5 million, is only about a quarter that of Argentina’s capital, Buenos Aires.

Still, having won the gold medals in soccer at both the 1924 and 1928 Olympics, Uruguay had been asked to host the very first World Cup, in 1930. And in that ’30 final, it beat its neighbor, Argentina, 4-2.

Twenty years later, the Uruguayan team was still a rugged outfit, though it clung to outdated formations and offensive thrusts that seldom got more sophisticated than the give-and-go. Brazil represented the game’s new wave, a weaving attack — a samba dance — that dazzled fans and left opponents breathless.

Uruguay had emerged, just barely, from the four-team, round-robin semi-finals by tying Spain 2-2, then nipping Sweden 3-2. Brazil had ravaged the same two European teams, 7-1 over Sweden and 6-1 over Spain.

A crowd, officially announced at 199,854, crammed into the Maracana and the victory party was expected to rival Carnival. Brazil did score the first goal, but not until early in the second half. And Uruguay would answer twice, the game-winner grazing the keeper’s outstretched hands before silencing the stadium.

From the heights of 1950, Uruguayan soccer would begin its slow fade. The team still made it to the semis in ’54, losing to Hungary, and again in ’70 when it lost to West Germany. But Uruguay hasn’t been to a World Cup in two decades, since 1990 when it failed to get out of the first round.

On Wednesday, the final day of South American qualification for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, in its capital city of Montevideo, Uruguay tried — but failed — to recapture some of that past glory at the expense of mighty Argentina. Diego Maradona's team booked its place at next summer's World Cup finals after substitute Mario Bolatti hit a late winner, ending Uruguay's hopes of snatching automatic qualification for South Africa.