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Ghana hailed as heroes, Uruguay play Dutch
JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - Underdogs Uruguay face the Netherlands on Tuesday for a place in the World Cup final after Ghana, who they controversially beat to get to the semis, were welcomed home as heroes.
Uruguay, who are in their first semi-final for 40 years, are harking back to glory days when they won the trophy in 1930 and 1950.
The Dutch are the best team never to have won it despite a style of open soccer that is famous around the world and will start as favourites, spearheaded by the deadly midfield trio of Arjen Robben, Wesley Sneijder and Dirk Kuyt.
Uruguay will likely be without three key players, and a heavy burden will fall on striker Diego Forlan, who scored a sublime free kick against Ghana.
While the two sides dreamed of glory, Ghana's Black Stars were basking in the adulation of a nation which greeted them as heroes despite their agonising defeat by Uruguay in a quarter-final penalty shoot-out.
Thousands of people turned out to cheer them late on Monday, spraying their jet with water cannons and rolling out the red carpet. Huge crowds flooded into Accra airport blasting vuvuzela trumpets, singing and banging drums.
Ghana were the only one of six African teams to reach the quarter-finals, matching the only previous nations to make that mark, Cameroon in 1990 and Senegal in 2002.
Their welcome contrasted with the shame of Nigeria who exited the group stage without scoring a goal, were greeted with disgust by much of the population and then got caught up in a dispute between FIFA and President Goodluck Jonathan.
The president of Africa's most populous nation on Monday withdrew his punishment of barring them from international competition for two years just in time to beat an ultimatum by FIFA which strongly opposes political interference.
Jonathan relented when FIFA threatened to suspend Nigeria from all its activities and freeze $250,000 annual assistance, but also following the national football federation's pledge to rebuild the team and the firing of its top two officials.
Jonathan said hundreds of messages on his Facebook page had helped sway him. FIFA said it would continue to monitor Nigeria for political interference.
Many Africans believe Ghana were cheated of victory when Uruguayan striker Luis Suarez handled the ball to prevent a certain goal in the dying seconds of extra time. Ghana then missed a penalty and lost a penalty shootout.
But Uruguay coach Oscar Tabarez angrily rejected the allegations. "This question is disgraceful," he told reporters.
Dutch coach Bert van Marwijk and his players are trying not to get over-confident against Uruguay who possess a tight defence and Forlan, one of the revelations of the World Cup.
Van Marwijk wants his players to copy Uruguay's passion.
The South Americans will be without Forlan's strike partner, Suarez, who was red carded over the handball against Ghana, and defender Jorge Fucile who is also suspended.
Captain Diego Lugano, a mainstay of defence, is likely to miss the semi-final because of a knee injury.
South African President Jacob Zuma said the World Cup would bring a good return for South Africa although analysts calculate only a fraction of more than $5 billion that has been spent on new infrastructure and stadiums will be recouped short term.
However, they believe there could be major long term benefits in investment and tourism and the rebranding of a nation previously better known for violent crime and poverty 16 years after the end of apartheid.
Germany play Spain on Wednesday but any superstitious fans may be worried that an allegedly psychic octopus which has correctly predicted the result of all their matches so far, foresees a loss.
Paul the octopus, which lives in an aquarium in western Germany, makes his prophecy by picking food from containers marked with the flags of the two teams.
Perhaps to counter the octopus, Germany coach Joachim Loew is refusing to change his trademark blue sweater on the touchline because staff and players think it brings them luck. (Editing by Jon Bramley; reporting by Reuters World Cup team)
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