BELO HORIZONTE Brazil (Reuters) - South American dark horses Colombia cantered into the World Cup knockout round on Thursday and 2010 semi-finalists Uruguay put hapless England on the brink of elimination with a Luis Suarez-inspired 2-1 win.
Returning from knee surgery and facing several Liverpool team mates, Suarez scored a brilliant header to put Uruguay ahead then won the game with a lethal drive after Wayne Rooney had equalised with his first World Cup goal.
“God Save The King!” read one proud banner over a photo of Suarez among the hordes of blue-clad Uruguayans dancing at the final whistle in Sao Paulo’s Corinthians arena.
The charismatic Suarez celebrated the first goal with his doctor, then showed class in hugging disconsolate Liverpool colleague and England captain Steven Gerrard at the end.
“I dreamed about this. I am enjoying this moment after all the criticism I had to take,” said Suarez, who fought back tears after his second goal.
The Uruguayan ace has had an up-and-down time in the Premier League with bans for racism and biting before winning last season’s Player of the Year award.
Uruguay joined Italy and Costa Rica, who meet on Friday, on three points with England on zero after two losses in Group D.
Having started their campaigns with exciting wins, Colombia and Ivory Coast served up a thriller as expected in Brasilia.
Even without injured leading striker Radamel Falcao, the South American champions are showing an abundance of offensive talent and a lightning, counter-attacking style to surprise their rivals.
James Rodriguez beat Ivory Coast substitute Didier Drogba to a corner with a powerful header for the first goal before Juan Quintero coolly netted a second in a 2-1 win that put Colombia on six points and guaranteed them a berth in the last 16.
Gervinho pulled one back for the Africans, but it was not enough to stop the party among Colombia’s yellow-clad masses, who are rivalling the Brazilians for noise and colour.
On the pitch, Colombia’s players have stolen the show for goal celebrations, with a group dance routine reminiscent of Cameroon’s famous hip-wiggling display in 1990.
“I‘m so happy, we’re a united group and we never lack courage,” said Colombia coach Jose Pekerman, whose dream is a final against his homeland Argentina.
Japan and Greece slugged out a 0-0 draw in Thursday’s last game, leaving them joint bottom of Group C with one point each and ensuring neither can catch group leaders Colombia.
Greece captain and midfielder Kostas Katsouranis let his team down with a sending off for two yellow cards in a game full of huff-and-puff but lacking Suarez-style clinical finishing.
Away from the on-field action, departing champions Spain were licking their wounds after a shock early exit from the tournament following losses to the Netherlands and Chile.
Despite conceding seven goals in a humiliating end to their rule of world soccer, Spain’s players showed dignity in defeat, admitting they were outplayed and that an era had ended.
The 2010 World Cup winners, who also triumphed at the last two European Championships, have a meaningless final game against Australia to play before flying home and beginning the job of rejuvenating their ageing squad of past greats.
Despondent Spanish fans could at least take heart from a talented group of young players waiting on the sidelines, starting with David De Gea who is likely to replace veteran captain and goalkeeper Iker Casillas.
The mood of realism in Spain could hardly be further from the wild euphoria in Chile where fans celebrated wildly one of the greatest conquests in their football history.
Chile face the Netherlands on Monday in their final Group B match, with both teams through but knowing defeat could see them face Brazil in the second round.
“The team that filled the Maracana with football yesterday knows no bounds,” one Chilean newspaper commentator wrote. “Not even Brazil can fill them with fear.”
The no-holds barred football on display in Brazil is in stark contrast to the cagey style seen in South Africa four years ago and points to a global shift in tactics that has been welcomed by fans the world over.
With the notable exception of Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo, who has been playing despite a knee problem, most of the big names have looked on form, adding to the glamour already guaranteed by the tournament’s location.
Away from the celebrities and riches on show among the 32 squads in Brazil, however, there was a timely reminder from Africa of football’s mass appeal in humbler quarters.
In a bid to keep TV sets on for the full 90 minutes of games, viewers in 65 million-strong Democratic Republic of Congo are being told ahead of each match in Brazil to turn off lights and cookers so as to ease the strain on the power grid.
It was French intellectual Albert Camus, a goalkeeper during his youth in Algeria, who perhaps best summed up how the sport mirrors life’s vicissitudes in his comment: “All that I know most surely about morality and obligations, I owe to football.”
Thursday saw life’s full spectrum at the World Cup.
A cheeky look-alike for Brazil coach Luiz Felipe Scolari raised laughs by giving a spoof interview on an aeroplane that duped one of the nation’s best-known journalists.
Then on a grim note, a Mexican fan was missing after falling off a cruise ship taking 3,500 of his countrymen along the coast to the city venue of their next game.
Friday’s action starts with Italy and Costa Rica duelling for supremacy in Group D after both opened with wins. Italy are hot favourites after beating England 2-1 but Costa Rica showed they are no pushovers in a 3-1 upset of Uruguay.
Switzerland play France in an all-European clash of the Group E leaders in Salvador. Then in the same section, Honduras and Ecuador close Friday’s programme in a battle between two tiny Latin American nations just thrilled to be here.
Additional reporting by Iain Rogers and Alonso Soto in Brasilia, Todd Benson in Sao Paulo, Peter Jones in Kinshasa, William Schomberg in Rio de Janeiro; editing by Ken Ferris