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Diego Forlan of Uruguay shoots and scores a penalty during the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa Group A match between South Africa and Uruguay at Loftus Versfeld Stadium. (Cameron Spencer/2010 Getty Images)
Diego Forlan of Uruguay shoots and scores a penalty during the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa Group A match between South Africa and Uruguay at Loftus Versfeld Stadium. (Cameron Spencer/2010 Getty Images)

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Three hours before the match, the slow train to Pretoria was packed with South Africa's jubilant fans. They were dancing the toyi-toyi, blowing the vuvuzela and singing that aching song of the old African migrants on the ancient trains: "Go forward, go forward."

A few hours later, the vuvuzelas fell silent. The dancing stopped, and many fans didn't even bother to stay to the end of the match. The dream was nearly over. Bafana Bafana, the underdog South African team, were completely outclassed by Uruguay, losing 3-0 on Wednesday in a match that never seemed in doubt.

The loss was devastating to South Africa's chances in the World Cup, and devastating to the nation's illusions. To have any chance of advancing, they will need to beat France next week, and pray for a favourable result from the other matches in their group. And the lopsided 3-0 score is a heavy blow to their goal differential - the tie-breaker if they manage the miracle of beating France.

For months, the Rainbow Nation has invested all of its hopes and dreams in this unlikely collection of players, ranked only 83rd in the world, a team that failed to qualify for the Africa Cup last year, and wouldn't have qualified for the World Cup if it wasn't the host country. Despite its slim prospects, the team was adored by the country, bringing together the races and the classes of this divided nation in a remarkably unifying moment, and seeming to take strength from the joyous fans when it battled to a 1-1 draw with Mexico last week.

The truth of its talent level, however, was painfully exposed on Wednesday, before a clamorous crowd of more than 42,000 at Loftus Versfeld stadium. South Africa now seems likely to become the first host country to be eliminated in the opening round of a World Cup.

To add poignancy to the defeat, Wednesday was the anniversary of the famous Soweto Uprising, the student protests that were brutally suppressed by the authorities in 1976, triggering the biggest battle in the fight against apartheid.

Uruguay, ranked 16th in the world, had little trouble with the South Africans, who rarely threatened to score and, in fact, seldom came close to the Uruguay goalkeeper. Long before the match was over, thousands of South African fans gave up and abandoned the stadium, knowing the result was clear, and knowing the nightmare of the traffic jams on the roads out. Among the few fans who stayed to the end, many seemed in tears.

Two goals by Diego Forlan did most of the damage, but the most dramatic moment was a red card issued to South African goalkeeper Itumeleng Khune after he clipped Luis Suarez as they both went for the ball.

Many analysts said Suarez was offside on the play, and the South Africans bitterly contested the referee's decision. Uruguay players had been theatrically diving throughout the match, and this one seemed no different.

The red card essentially ended the contest. It left South Africa short-handed and led directly to Forlan's second goal on the ensuing penalty. Khune will now be sidelined for South Africa's crucial match against France next week.

After the match, South African head coach Carlos Alberto Parreira launched a verbal tirade about the refereeing, calling it the worst of the tournament.

"It looked very unfair from the beginning," he told a postgame press conference. He complained that referee Massimo Busacca of Switzerland left the match smiling.

Parreira tried to buck up his players after the match.

"Everyone is disappointed and sad, but I told them it's not decided yet," he said. "We have to win the next game. We have to be more aggressive, no doubt."

The South African players are clinging to the hopes of beating France by a sufficient margin to advance to the next round.

"It's heartbreaking, but we just have to pick ourselves up," midfielder Steven Pienaar said.

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