The 2010 World Cup was an unforgettable experience. Vuvuzelas served as the soundtrack to a tournament hosted on African soil for the first time, with South Africa the stage for a competition that saw the Jabulani ball bamboozle goalkeepers and Spain’s tiki-taka triumph.
But when the end-of-show awards were handed out to honour the headline acts, it was not a member of Spain’s successful side that was coronated with the Golden Ball. That award was given to Diego Forlan, the inspiration behind Uruguay’s run to the semi-finals.
For Forlan, it represented the crest of a career that had seen the forward championed, chastised, and celebrated again.
Football had been in Forlan’s blood, as the son and grandson of former Uruguay internationals. After a dalliance with tennis in his younger years, he chose to focus on football – and the finances it could offer – after a car accident that had left his sister paralysed. Diego Maradona, a friend of his father’s, had helped with the initial fundraising for his sister’s treatment.
Forlan failed to earn a contract during a trial at French side AS Nancy, before crossing the border to sign for Argentina’s Independiente. He scored 37 goals in 80 games in the Primera División, form which attracted European interest. Middlesbrough had appeared set to win the race to sign the striker, until Manchester United pounced and hijacked the deal.
Sir Alex Ferguson’s side were the Premier League’s dominant force, having won each of the previous three titles consecutively, and seven since the early nineties when England’s top-tier clubs chose to breakaway from the Football League. The deal was concluded in January 2002, but Forlan’s false-start saw him stutter in front of goal and his woes continued into the following season. Though his effort could not be faulted, he failed to score in 26 appearances over eight months.
The critics were soon out in full force, as Forlan became a Premier League punch-line. A lack of goals, and opportunities, had him painted as a flop, unable to handle the rigours of English football.
But Forlan was made of sterner stuff. He opened his account after pleading to take a penalty in a Champions League game with Maccabi Haifa, before a productive run saw him score goals against Aston Villa and Southampton from the bench. The latter, a late winner, saw Forlan remove his shirt in celebration, before struggling to redress himself as the game continued around him.
— Manchester United (@ManUtd) January 18, 2019
His lung-busting endeavour had endeared Forlan to the Manchester United fans, even if it had failed to quite click for him in the club’s colours. An afternoon in the Anfield sun, in which he scored both goals in a 2-1 win at arch-rivals Liverpool, assuring cult status at the very least.
If Forlan had prayed to a higher power for a change of luck, then this was his gift from the heavens. Jerzy Dudek made a mess of Jamie Carragher’s header back, allowing the ball to squirm through his grasp. There, gratefully, was Forlan to tap home. A second goal soon arrived, smashed inside Dudek’s near post.
“Today his perseverance has been rewarded in a big way because the fans will never forget it,” Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson said at the time.
He was right. Decades later on their trips to Anfield, the Manchester United fans still sing of the man from Uruguay, who made the Scousers cry.
Though his hustle and hard work were admired, strikers are fundamentally judged on goals and a return of 17 in 98 appearances represented a modest return. He was sold to Villarreal in 2004, as the arrival of Wayne Rooney spelled the end of his time at Old Trafford. Few were overly sad to see him exit.
Having been somewhat swallowed amid the expectation in England, the switch to Spain ignited what had been floundering fortunes since his move to Europe. Forlan opened his account on debut and did not stop scoring from there, firing Villarreal to Champions League qualification for the first time in the club’s history.
The Uruguayan was suddenly Vesuvian, erupting from his Premier League dormancy in La Liga. He scored 25 league goals, including a hat-trick in a 3-3 draw at Barcelona, to beat Samuel Eto’o to the Pichichi Trophy as La Liga’s leading scorer.
The European Golden Shoe also arrived, shared with Arsenal’s Thierry Henry, with Forlan having been transformed from figure of fun to formidable forward in a single season. No flash in the pan, he scored 59 goals in 128 games for the Yellow Submarine before crossing to the capital to sign for Atletico Madrid.
In the red and white of Los Colchoneros he was even more prolific, cementing his status as one of Spanish football’s elite. He scored 74 league goals for Atleti across four seasons, including an astonishing 2008/09 that saw him net 32 goals in 33 league games to win his second Pichichi and European Golden Shoe gongs.
In 2009/10, he inspired Atletico to continental success. Having disappointed in the Champions League’s group stage to exit without a win, the Spaniards dropped into the Europa League and Forlan was outstanding during their run to the final.
Having scored a late winner against Galatasaray in the first knockout round, he scored in both legs of the semi-final win over Liverpool. Back at the scene of his famous double for Manchester United, Forlan converted a decider in extra-time to send Atletico through on away goals.
English opposition awaited again in the final, in the form of Roy Hodgson’s Fulham. The Cottagers had upset the odds to reach the showpiece and lived up to their plucky underdog status in Hamburg. Simon Davies cancelled out Forlan’s opener for Atletico, to send the final into extra-time. As the cup’s fortunes creeped towards the lottery of a penalty shootout, Forlan got across Brede Hangeland to meet Sergio Aguero’s cross and turn home.
— UEFA Europa League (@EuropaLeague) May 12, 2022
Forlan’s reputation was at an all-time high, having welded himself to world-class status with a glut of goals. South Africa, 2010, confirmed that standing. Uruguay entered the tournament with limited expectations, having missed out on three of the previous four World Cups. In their one participation during that run, La Celeste suffered a group stage exit.
For Forlan, now 31, it felt like a last chance to shine on such stage. Two goals against the host nation all but booked Uruguay’s place in the knockout rounds and Forlan fired the South Americans all the way to the semi-finals.
The Jabulani ball’s unpredictable flight was the bane of goalkeepers at the 2010 World Cup, but Forlan mastered its movement. A long-range strike against South Africa was followed by similar stunners against Ghana and the Netherlands, as Forlan set the tournament alight.
Defeat to the Dutch ended Uruguay’s run, but it was a tournament to remember for Forlan, who claimed the Golden Ball and Goal of the Tournament awards, and finished as the joint-leading scorer at the finals.
— FIFA World Cup (@FIFAWorldCup) March 12, 2020
Uruguay claimed Copa America success the following summer, a first continental title in 16 years. Alongside Luis Suarez, Forlan fired the side to success and was on target twice in the final win over Paraguay at the Estadio Monumental in Buenos Aires.
Forlan departed Atletico Madrid that summer, with 2011 beginning the start of his decline. An underwhelming spell at Inter Milan was followed by a globe-trotting tour, one that took in spells in Brazil, Japan, Uruguay – winning a league title at boyhood club Peñarol – India and Hong Kong before bowing out from the game.
Forlan’s elevation to an elite level came as a result of hard work, resilience and steel. In the face of doubters he did what he always did, ran willingly, chased lost causes, and sought to make his own luck. That luck might have deserted him during his time in England, but few forwards with Forlan’s goal record are remembered as fondly at Manchester United.
An application and attitude that was exemplary even in the toughest times set Forlan apart. It transformed his narrative from flop to feared.