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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.

Uruguay has long considered neighboring Argentina its great rival; after all, Montevideo, is a mere 150 miles away, across the Rio de la Plata, from Buenos Aires. But Argentines regard soccer superpower Brazil as its only worthy rival and most don’t remember Uruguay as anything more than a second-rank team and an occasional pest on the soccer field.

Uruguay could have been the pest that took the final bite out of Argentina’s very foundation. Despite a star-studded lineup led by Lionel Messi whom many regard as the best player in the world today, Argentina had staggered through the qualification rounds. While Brazil, Paraguay and Chile have already punched their tickets for South Africa, Argentina had only the most tenuous hold on the fourth and final South American berth in the 2010 Cup.

It sat just one point ahead of Uruguay and only two ahead of Ecuador. But now it has claimed the fourth spot, leaving Uruguay with only a backdoor shot at reaching South Africa, by beating either Honduras or Costa Rica in a two-game playoff.

Had Argentina lost, it would have been an epic failure, one that would dwarf all the rest of Argentina’s sobering news about economic woes and the first couple’s power grabs.

And Uruguay is certainly the little country that could; in eight home games, it has lost only once — to still-mighty Brazil. The ascension of Argentina’s legendary star, Maradona, to national coach had failed to inspire the team, adding only confusion to its performances. Argentina barely staved off disaster Saturday in Buenos Aires when it scored in the final seconds of extra time for an uninspiring 2-1 victory over Peru, the bottom team on the South American ladder.

It needed this result on the road, in Uruguay, where Argentina has won only once in eight contests. It has been even shakier away from home since Maradona took over, three straight losses in which it has been outscored 9-1.

A World Cup without Argentina seemed almost unimaginable. Then again, once upon a time they said that about Uruguay too.