Surely he couldn’t fluff his lines again, could he? Diego Forlán’s career at Manchester United was on the verge of frittering out as he stepped up to take a penalty against Maccabi Haifa in September 2002. He simply could not afford to add another miss to his already substantial collection.
United were winning 4-2 and there was only one minute remaining in the Champions League group stage match, but this was big.
Forlán had arrived at Old Trafford that January and, eight months and 27 appearances later, he was yet to score. He may have looked like Tarzan, but he had been playing like Jane. So when David Beckham was brought down in the box, the long-haired Uruguayan asked his captain for the chance to finally score his first goal for the club.
Anything but a rippling of the net would surely have been the final nail in the coffin for the 23-year-old’s United career. Sir Alex Ferguson – a man not known for his patience – was caught chuckling by the camera as Forlán looked to Beckham for some mercy. So, after placing the ball on the spot, off he went. One step, two step, three step, four step, five … bang! Forlán slotted the penalty to the left side of the goal, while the keeper dived in the opposite direction, and Forlán enjoyed a moment of pure relief.
By that point in his life Forlán was no stranger to pressure. As the son of Pablo Forlán and grandson of Juan Carlos Corazzo, who had both won the Copa América for Uruguay, he had lived in the shadow of success throughout his childhood. Yet Forlán never worried too much about living up to his name and didn’t even plan on joining the family business. Instead, as a youngster he looked likely to become a professional tennis player.
However, a change of path came about in 1991 when a horrific car accident paralysed his sister Alejandra and killed her boyfriend. The family was struggling to afford the treatment but Diego Maradona, a friend of Pablo Forlán, helped them pay for mounting medical bills by playing in a fundraising game. Alejandra, who is involved – with Diego – in running a foundation that warns of the repercussions of dangerous driving, later reflected: “The first thing he told me when I was lying in the hospital bed was that he would become a famous football player and make money to get me the best doctors in the world.”
Forlán began his bid to become a professional footballer at a later age than most other world class players and had some catching up to do. Despite plenty of hard work, rejection from AS Nancy in 1995 – after flying to Europe and spending several months on trial with the French club – showed that his development still had some way to go.
The teenager started afresh across the Río de la Plata border, in Argentina, where he joined up with the Independiente youth team and he refined his craft, eventually earning promotion to the senior team. He made his first-team debut aged 18 – older than most other future world stars – and he performed reasonably well in his four seasons there. By scoring 40 goals in 91 appearances, he attracted interest from some European clubs, including Middlesbrough.
With a move to the north-east of England on the cards, Forlán flew back to Europe in the 2002 winter transfer window for another big move audition. Unlike his experience in France seven years before, this trip surpassed all expectations as he ended up signing for one of the giants of world football, Manchester United. Middlesbrough were not able to pay the £6.9m transfer fee in one instalment, so United swooped in and snatched the Independiente player for themselves.
Yet the man nicknamed “El Cachavacha” was out of his depth as he began his United career. His effort and energy could not be faulted, but he charged about like the Tasmanian Devil. Even when he did manage to get shots away, they seemed more likely to land in the car park than pass through the frame of the goal. Eventually, however, Forlán got off the mark against Maccabi Haifa and, spurred on by finally breaking his duck, he scored a late equaliser against Aston Villa and a late winner against Southampton shortly afterwards, before nabbing two goals in a memorable 2-1 win at Anfield in January 2003, capitalising on a Jerzy Dudek howler.
All of a sudden, the Uruguayan’s chest was regularly beamed out to TV sets across the country, with his customary celebration marking some vital Manchester United goals. When he hit that late winner against Southampton, he even struggled to get his shirt back from the fans after some bare-chested celebrating and he comically restarted play half-naked. Fifa’s ban on removing shirts in 2003 owes a lot to the fact that Forlán finally hit a purple patch at Old Trafford.
For neutrals, it was encouraging to see. Plenty of jokes had been made at Forlán’s expense, but fans admired his effort and the way he would chase every ball as if he had a third lung. His manager commended his work ethic during that troubled spell and his never-give-up attitude helped him score some important goals as United won the league in 2002-03. Of course, this was not the happy ending to the Forlán story; it was merely the optimistic note on which Act One ended. His impressive spell was bookended by mediocrity.
The 2003-04 campaign began poorly, with the striker failing to find the back of the net until the 10th league match of the season, in a 3-1 defeat to Fulham. After posting a total of just four goals in the Premier League campaign, plus two in the Champions League and one in the FA Cup, Forlán was let go that summer. With Wayne Rooney arriving to plenty, there was no place for the well-liked but frustratingly inconsistent striker.
There is nothing disgraceful about failing at Manchester United, yet many players have struggled to bounce back from Ferguson’s rejection over the years. Despite being good players – just not Manchester United level players – the likes of Eric Djemba-Djemba, Kléberson, Roy Carroll and Kieran Richardson were all bruised by their Old Trafford experience and struggled after leaving Old Trafford. Yet Forlán, who left Old Trafford aged 25 – around the same age – went on to reach his peak after being moved on.
His next destination was Villarreal, a club as different from Manchester United as it is possible to be while remaining in a top European league. With the city boasting a population of just 50,000 people, Forlán had fewer neighbours in 2004-05 than he had fans watching him in 2003-04. As he had done after his rejection from AS Nancy, Forlán put his head down and went back to work, determined to achieve greatness. If this was a movie of the striker’s life, then this would be the time to insert the inspiring training montage.
Unlike his stuttering start to life in the red of Manchester United, Forlán hit the ground running in yellow, scoring on the opening day derby against Valencia, before scoring in three consecutive matches in October. As Christmas neared he really hit top form and smashed in 14 goals in a 15-game span, including a brace in a 3-0 win over Barcelona.
With just two games of the season remaining, Forlán had scored 20 league goals and was on course to finish in the top three goalscorers of the La Liga season, behind Ricardo Oliveira and Samuel Eto’o. Yet he scored a hat-trick in a 3-3 draw against Barcelona at the Camp Nou, before scoring twice in a 4-1 win over Levante on the final day of the season. In the span of nine months, Forlán had gone from Premier League reject to the holder of the Pichichi Trophy and the joint-winner of the 2005 European Golden Boot – along with Thierry Henry.
He won the Pichichi again in 2008-09, proving that his debut season in Spanish football was no fluke. By that point Forlán was wearing the red and white of Atlético Madrid after relocating to the capital in 2007, following two further stellar seasons for Manuel Pellegrini’s Champions League semi-finalists.
Signed by Los Rojiblancos for £18m in 2007 to replace Fernando Torres, Forlán quickly became a fan favourite at the Vicente Calderón. Many supporters were sceptical about whether he could lead the line as effectively as El Niño, but Forlán was quick to showcase his talents, scoring in his first four Uefa Cup matches and racking up five more in his first nine La Liga appearances. His decent return of 16 league goals that season was capped off with the winner in the 1-0 victory over Deportivo La Coruña in the penultimate weekend of the season that took Atlético into the Champions League for the first time in a decade.
Forlán doubled his La Liga goal tally from 16 to 32 in the following campaign to claim the Pichichi award for the third time and the European Golden Boot outright, while, just for good measure, he scored a last-minute winner against Espanyol in May 2009 to take the club into the Champions League once again.
Atlético struggled in that 2009-10 Champions League and Forlán had a poor start to the season, even sitting on the bench at times. Quique Sánchez Flores came in as manager in October and helped Atlético and Forlán flourish once again in a remarkable second half of the season. He scored a dozen times from New Year onwards to help the club to the final of the Copa del Rey and the Europa League, the latter of which they won.
The Uruguayan was exceptional in that final, turning defenders, raising eyebrows and breaking Fulham hearts. He smacked the post with a shot in the 12th minute, hinting at what was to come 20 minutes later when he blasted the ball into the net to finish off a lightning-quick Harlem Globetrotters-eque counter-attack that passed from José Antonio Reyes to Simão to Sergio Agüero to Forlán. In his early Manchester United days, that ball would have trickled past the post; now the ageing Forlán hit the target with astounding consistency.
Fulham pulled level and pushed the final into extra-time, where Forlán excelled. In the final minute of the first period he went on a jinking run into the box and played a nutmegged pass through Aaron Hugues, only for Agüero to strike wide. Ten minutes into the second period, though, the roles reversed and Agüero played the ball into his colleague, who prodded the winner past Mark Schwarzer before ripping off his shirt for old times’ sake.
If you thought lifting a European trophy would be the highlight of Forlán’s summer in 2010, you’d be mistaken. Although already in his 30s, Forlán had yet to truly shine in the light blue of Uruguay, but that was all about to change in South Africa. Having failed to qualify for the 2006 World Cup, when he would have been 27 and, theoretically, at the height of his powers, Uruguay and Forlán were just happy to be there.
Following a goalless draw in their opener against France, Forlán scored two goals against the host nation to effectively secure passage to the last-16 stage. His assist for a Luis Suárez goal against South Korea got the knockout stages off to an excellent start and he didn’t look back. Forlán scored a free-kick equaliser in the quarter-final against Ghana (the game made famous for Suárez’s handball) and he also scored a long-range screamer in the semi-final against Holland – although the Dutch would ultimately progress with a 3-2 win.
Uruguay lost 3-2 to Germany in the third place play-off, but Forlán added his fifth goal of the tournament – a beautifully agile volley – to help him claim the Player of the Tournament award, a prize also won by Zinedine Zidane, Ronaldo and family friend Diego Maradona. At the age of 31, Forlán’s name was finally mentioned in the same sentence as the term “world-class”.
The following summer brought even more success for Uruguay and their veteran striker, as Forlán followed in the footsteps of his father and grandfather by bringing the Copa América home to Montevideo. Despite not scoring in the group stage or in the quarter-final and semi-final wins – although he did hit the ferocious long-range effort that produced the rebound from which Suárez tapped home the opener in the semi-final against Peru – Forlán saved his best for last by scoring a brace in the final against Paraguay to complete a 3-0 win and claim a 15th Copa América title for Uruguay. It made
Uruguay the most successful team in the tournament’s history at the expense of hosts Argentina. Nothing could be sweeter.
Nothing since has been quite that sweet for the striker. On an international level, Forlán played in and scored in both the 2013 Confederations Cup and the 2014 World Cup, before announcing his international retirement after Uruguay were defeated by Colombia at the last-16 stage in Brazil. On the club scene, Forlán left Atlético in the summer of 2011, a decision that was more about politics than his form on the pitch.
He was shipped off to Inter, where he was often played out of position and lasted just one season, after which he returned to South America to join Brazilian side Internacional, his father’s former team. His tournament-leading nine goals helped them win the Campeonato Gaúcho and off he went again, this time to Cerezo Osaka in Japan for 18 months of Asian football.
A return to boyhood and hometown club Peñarol followed, where he secured another title at the age of 37. Although that title win was an emotional one for the man from Montevideo, and although he celebrated every goal by sprinting off with the same childlike joy of always, it was becoming clear that Forlán’s glory days were coming to an end. But there will be at least one more chapter for Forlán. He signed a three-month deal with Indian Super League club Mumbai City over the weekend and may end up staying with the club for a year.
When Forlán does announce his retirement from the game, football will have lost one of its greats. He was a naturally skilful striker, but his greatness is largely derived from his attitude and willingness to improve when doubted, all the while maintaining a friendly smile and an easy-going attitude.
Forlán resonates with fans. It is not often that a footballer’s career can provide morals, but there are plenty of lessons to be learned from Forlán. If you’re planning a career change but worry that you’re too far down one path, remember that Uruguay’s second-top appearance holder and second-top goalscorer was planning to be a tennis player. If you’re handed an unexpected promotion too early and find yourself out of your depth, keep at it like Forlán did after 26 Manchester United matches and you might eventually find some success. And, if you feel like you’re climbing the career ladder slower than your peers, keep in mind that Forlán peaked at the age of 31.
Quite simply, if you feel you’re failing in your professional life, remember that Diego Forlán was a late bloomer who achieved a career few of us could dream of through perseverance and hard work. Forlán’s time in football tallies well with an ancient Chinese proverb: be not afraid of growing slowly, be afraid only of standing still.
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