Meet Diego Forlan: An accidental footballer for whom success was slow in coming
Forlan is an anachronism in an age where precocity is celebrated, and prodigies, deified.
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Forlan, newly-transplanted from the Río de la Plata, had endured a nightmare start to his life at the Theatre of Dreams. Nine months since his January transfer to Manchester United, he had been unable to find the net till that point – a dismal return for a forward who cost a then-princely sum of £6.9 million. Ferguson, who had a reputation of nurturing young talent, was also known to be heavy-handed with the rake. “It was especially difficult to adapt because I did not have the backing of the coach. It is difficult get into the rhythm if you are playing only 10-15 minutes every game,” Forlan said at an event in Mumbai.
Diego Forlan is an anachronism in an age where precocity is celebrated, and prodigies, deified. As prepubescent teenagers, Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappé were already on the radar of the world’s biggest clubs, and were being courted by scouts and managers alike. At that age, Forlan was aimlessly smacking tennis balls at the clay courts of the Carrasco Lawn Tennis Club in Montevideo. In 1991, Forlan’s sister Alejandra was involved in a car accident. She was left paralyzed. Her boyfriend was killed. The medical bills started piling up, and the family was on the verge of going under till a certain Diego Maradona intervened with a donation, and a word of advice.
Forlan was to follow in the footsteps of his namesake and benefactor. He had big boots to fill. Friends and family were convinced of his talent. As the son and grandson of Uruguayan international footballers, Forlan was marked out for greatness on the pitch. His father, Pablo Forlan was friends with Diego Maradona from their playing days in Argentina. His grandfather, Juan Carlos Corazzo, a former player, managed the national team in the 1962 FIFA World Cup. A young Forlan traded his non-marking shoes for football boots. But he had a lot of catching up to do.
In football - as is the case with other performing arts - a well-known surname can be an invaluable asset. Despite a slow start to his footballing career, Forlan flew to Europe in 1995 with the best references. “The speed level in South America is a little bit lower than that in Europe. I was very young,” he said. After spending several months on trial with the French club AS Nancy, Forlan was let go. He was deemed to be at an early point in his development as a player, and a professional contract could not be exacted despite his family’s contacts. Forlan had blown his head start, and was back to square one.
Salió del Rey de Copas y luego brilló en todo el mundo. Sí, nos quedamos con las ganas de verlo con la Roja de nu… https://t.co/5PmplfXRdI— C. A. Independiente (@Independiente) 1565212358000
He left home once again to ply his trade for the youth team of the Argentine side Independiente, a team whose stripes his grandfather had worn over half a century ago. Shortly thereafter, he earned a promotion to the senior team, aged 18. Four years, 91 appearances, and 40 goals later, Forlan returned to Europe in the winter of 2002 for another round of auditions. Expectations were high, but this time he had the credentials to complement his bloodline. Middlesbrough were interested, but were outbid by Manchester United. He signed for the Red Devils on January 22 and made his debut seven days later.
“When I arrived in England, I could adapt to my new surroundings because I had learned English in school. So when I arrived at the training ground, it was easy for me to talk to my teammates and the manager,” said Forlan. However, he was less fluent with the ball at his feet, fluffing his lines at every opportunity afforded him. Competition for places was rife in the United squad, with Ruud van Nistelrooy and Ole Gunnar Solskjær ahead of him in the pecking order.
Six months into his United career, Forlan was yet to score a single goal. He was firing blanks at Old Trafford, and despite his work rate and good looks –blue eyes, aquiline nose, and a mane of golden hair – patience was running thin with the fans. Mancunians thought they’d signed a Latin American Bjorn Borg. Instead, they were left with a David Nalbandian – an earnest player with talent and grit, but less to show for it.
“When you are on the bench, and you play only 5-10 minutes every game, and even then sometimes, you are not at the level the manager expects you to be at because for all your life, you play at one level, and then you go to the biggest league in the world, the speed is much faster, with all the best players in the world, and you are expected to deliver in the five minutes you get to play. You will eventually adapt, but it will happen very slowly,” he added.
A little generosity on the part of Beckham notwithstanding, Forlan did, eventually, break his duck. But the goals did not flow. His talent was evident, but in snatches, and more often than not, his appearances from the bench were a means to run down the clock, rather than tactical substitutions. However, Forlan did get a chance to ingratiate himself with the United fans, scoring a brace in a 2-1 victory at Anfield, the home of United’s biggest rivals and the most successful club in the land, Liverpool. When the ball went into the back of the net, he promptly took off his shirt, and sprinted to the away fans, the bare-chested messiah ordained by fate to deliver Alex Ferguson’s prophecy that Manchester United would knock Liverpool off their perch.
Success was slow in coming, but Forlan was gradually beginning to grip of life in the Premier League. He scored six goals that season, a modest return. But each of those six goals were accompanied by indiscriminate celebrations, given Forlan’s proclivity to take off his top at every opportunity. The Uruguayan’s torso and ripping biceps became a fixture on television sets around the world, so much so that he holds the dubious distinction of being responsible for FIFA’s 2003 ban on players removing their jerseys. In fact, after scoring a late winner against Southampton in November 2002, Forlan had trouble getting his shirt back from the fans, leaving him half naked when play was restarted.
The following season was less dramatic for the Uruguayan. The goals had dried up. He netted four goals in the league, and the manager’s patience was running thin. In the summer of 2004, an 18-year-old Wayne Rooney joined Manchester United, freshly plucked from other Merseyside team, Everton. Ferguson was forced to employ his pruning shears. Forlan was deemed surplus to requirements, and dispatched to Villareal. At 24, the Uruguayan seemed out of his depth. Entering the prime years of his playing career, Forlan’s reputation rested on a few moments of brilliance bookended by middling performances. But a move to Spain proved to be opportune.
Unlike his lackluster start at Old Trafford where he was relegated to the bench, Forlan thrived at the Estadio de la Cerámica, scoring on the opening day against Valencia. “When, I went to Spain, I played right away. Ninety minutes today. Then five days of rest, and 90 minutes again. So it was easy for me, I had the chance to play. But I understand what happened in Manchester. I was at one of the best teams in the world. There was no space for me,” he said.
Forlan scored in three successive matches in October, becoming an instant hit for the team in yellow. In three seasons at Villareal, he scored 54 goals from 106 appearances, drawing attention from the Spanish capital. In a matter of months, he had gone from being a benchwarmer at Old Trafford to the holder of the Pichichi trophy and the 2005 European Golden Boot. He came from behind to overtake Barcelona’s Samuel Eto’o as the league’s top scorer by netting a hat-trick at the Camp Nou. After resurfacing his career, he left Villareal – nicknamed the Yellow Submarine – to join Atletico Madrid for £18 million.
Forlan was drafted into the side to replace the outgoing Fernando Torres. He made a good first impression, scoring five times in his first nine games, helping Los Rojiblancos to qualify for the Champions League for the first time in a decade. Forlan’s stock rose further in his second season in the Spanish capital. He scored 32 goals to reclaim the Pichichi award – given to the top scorer in La Liga- and the European Golden Boot. He struck up a formidable partnership a young Sergio Aguero, a fellow Independiente alumnus and soon-to-be son-in-law of Diego Maradona. In the last match of the 2009-10 season, the duo combined to take apart Fulham, giving the Atletico faithful the first Eruopa League trophy in the club’s history. But the summer would prove to be more eventful.
Count Dracula’s hands
In 2010, Forlan had emerged as an elder statesman in the national team, mentoring the likes of Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani. Both players would go on to surpass Forlan’s tally for the national team. A rush of blood to the head saw Suarez deliberately handle the ball in the box against Ghana in the quarterfinal of the FIFA World Cup in South Africa.
The intervention earned him a red card, but by keeping the ball out of the net, Suarez gave Uruguay a second lease of life. A penalty was awarded, which Asamoah Gyan sent crashing against the crossbar. Uruguay ultimately progressed in a penalty shootout. “I think Luis Suarez is the best number nine in the world at the moment. But as a ten, I would say there are always Cristiano and Messi. I think both of them are very good players. It is difficult to say (who is better),” Forlan said.
Suarez, who has reputation for using his teeth to impede opposition defenders, is often compared with Bram Stoker’s fictional vampire. His scalps include Italy’s Giorgio Chiellini and former Chelsea defender Branislav Ivanovic, among others. Suarez was suspended from the semifinal clash against Holland for his infraction in the previous round. Forlan’s long-range screamer against Holland proved to be a consolation goal as the Dutch won 3-2. He finished the tournament as joint top scorer, and also the winner of the Golden Ball, the previous holders of who include Diego Maradona and Zinedine Zidane.
Despite winning the first two of the first four editions of the World Cup, Uruguay was never seen as a contemporary footballing powerhouse. Traditional heavyweights like Argentina and Brazil have enjoyed a stranglehold on Latin American football, walking lockstep with European counterparts like Germany and France on the world stage. But Uruguayan football has been undergoing something of a renaissance in the last decade under the watchful eye of Óscar Tabárez. “In Uruguay, the football culture is not like what you see in Europe. It is about mentality. We are a small country, between 3-3.5 million, while you have 1.3 billion people. So we don’t think about the infrastructure or the economy when we play,” he said.
“Uruguayans love playing football, and when we are on the pitch, we compete. It doesn’t matter if we are playing against Brazil or Argentina. There may be players who are physically stronger or technically more gifted than you are. But if you try hard enough, you can be competitive,” Forlan added. The following summer, he led Uruguay to success in the Copa America, emulating a feat his grandfather had achieved in 1959. Diego Forlan had finally arrived.
If on a winter’s night a traveler
After a short stint at Inter Milan, where he replaced his former nemesis Samuel Eto’o, Forlan relocated to South America in 2012, opting to ply his trade for the Brazilian side International, spurning the advances of deep-pocketed clubs from Europe. “If you are a physically strong player, with good technical ability, and intelligence, you can play anywhere in the world. I know it is easy for me to say this because I have played in different countries, with a lot of good players, and also some bad ones. Not everyone is good. For those people who never left Europe to go around the world and see how the game is played, it is hard to understand how global football is today,” said Forlan.
After two seasons, he was on the move again, this time, taking an intercontinental flight to Japan to sign for J League side Cerezo Osaka. Forlan is all praise for the Japanese game, but skeptical of the approach adopted by Asian peers like China.
“When I was young, in 1992 or 1993, Japanese teams would come to South American countries like Brazil and Uruguay. And they’ve been doing it for so many years. They have a strong league, good players, training facilities, and they have good money as well. They have the mentality that they will be champions in the future. They are good with technology. 1+1 = 2. But in football, 1+1 is not equal to 2. The Chinese don’t understand that,” he said, underlining his point that money alone cannot buy sporting excellence.
In July 2015, Forlan signed for his boyhood club Peñarol, helping them to the Uruguayan Primera División. But the prodigal son had not returned to stay -at least, not yet. A footloose footballer, Forlan’s travels then brought him to India.
Baby by the bay
Forlan was tapped to represent Mumbai City FC in the 2016 season of the Indian Super League. “I came here with my family, and my baby boy. Now, he is a little bigger. My wife, she told me she was pregnant again when we were here in India. We had a baby girl. So, now we have three (kids). It was a great year, and a great league. We didn’t win, but we played well. I met a lot of Indian players who were very talented, and also nice guys. I am still in touch with them. I had a wonderful time in India. One thing I can’t handle is the spicy food,” he said.
The demanding nature of the fledgling league meant that there was less time to get acclimatized to the local conditions. “We didn’t train much, as we’d play in Mumbai on Sunday, and then in Kerala on Thursday. Most of the time would go in traveling, resting, and getting ready for the next match,” he said. However, Forlan remains optimistic that the popularity of football can pick up in India, especially if domestic players get drafted into the squads of European teams.
“When I came here, I met many players from different backgrounds. It’s not that there are good players only in Europe or South America. I have played in many countries, and can say for a fact that there are some very good players in Asia and Africa as well. For countries that don’t have a history in football, the people should realize that anybody can play football. It doesn’t matter if your country has a history in football or not,” he said.
Forlan is not alone in spreading the gospel of football to far-flung outposts in the Orient. Atletico old boys David Villa and Fernando Torres are currently playing in Japan, as is Lukas Podolski and Andres Iniesta, much to the benefit of the local players, who otherwise would not have the chance of rubbing shoulders with the best players in the world.
“When I came here to India, I played with strong players, tough players. And if they had a chance to go to Europe, they would do really well because they have all the attributes – physical strength, intelligence, adaptability. It is sometimes a little bit difficult to travel around the world. It is not easy to adapt to new culture in countries where you go to play football.
“People might think India is years behind other countries, but you need to realize that experienced coaches and players can help groom local talent. And soon, I am sure, there will be a time that Indian players will be playing for Real Madrid and Barcelona, like players from other countries in Asia and Africa,” Forlan said.
“I am not as big as many other players, but I played in Europe for 11 years. I have to know which is my strong asset, how to use it in an intelligent way, and try my best. In India, you have Sunil (Chhetri), who went away (abroad) and came back much stronger. You can see how good a player he is. I keep in touch with him.
“Maybe if he stayed in Europe for some more years, and for a different team, he would’ve become an even better player. It is not that he couldn’t play abroad because he is an Indian player. If you are a physically strong player, with good technical ability, and intelligence, you can play anywhere in the world,” he added.
In the dugout
“I wanted to come back to India, but they didn’t make an offer. I stopped (playing professionally) for a couple of years, and then I had my second baby girl. My wife gave birth in May. There was a good offer from Hong Kong,” Forlan said. After a brief spell with Hong Kong Premier League club Kitchee, Forlan hung up his boots on August 7, 2019. In the meantime, he has kept himself busy by studying for his coaching licence.
“I completed my coaching badge in South America. But you know, it (coaching licences) is not uniform all around the world. If you want to coach in Europe, you need a different licence by UEFA. I plan to get one from Spain to be eligible to coach in Europe. It is also a great time to be a coach in India,” he added. Having spent his life, largely living out of suitcases, setting up residence in Montevideo, in the neighbourhood he grew up in, was as challenging as adapting to life in the Far East.
“Sometimes, the culture is difficult, as is the food and the language. I loved Mumbai because I adapted to life here, the same with Japan and Hong Kong. Then, when I go back to Uruguay, I have to adapt again. For twenty years, I was playing away from home. Then, when I went back after retiring, everything had changed,” he said.
Since returning to Uruguay, Forlan (40) has resumed his long-standing affair with his first love: tennis. He frequents the Carrasco Lawn Tennis Club, knocking about with Uruguay’s Davis Cup captain Enrique Perez. He is also seen in the spectator box at the annual ATP Montevideo Challenger, having been one of the dignitaries who participated in drawing the lots last year.
However, Forlan could be on the move once again to earn his coaching badge in Europe. Former colleagues like Diego Simeone and Ole Gunnar Solskjær have tasted success as managers at their former stomping grounds, Atletico Madrid and Manchester United respectively. But a stint on the touchline could yet be far away for one of football’s most prolific late bloomers.
After many false starts, Forlan managed to get into his stride in the home stretch of his playing career, and he reckons that staying the course was the best decision he ever made. By dint of hard work and mental fortitude, he managed to resurrect his career, finishing up as one of the most decorated footballers in an era dominated by Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. “Anybody can play football. Sometimes, what you need to achieve your goal is mental strength,” he said.