As featured on Guardian Sport
He surely couldn’t fluff his lines again, could he? Diego Forlán’s Manchester United career was on the verge of frittering out as he stepped up in front of the Stretford End to take a penalty against Maccabi Haifa, so he simply could not afford to add another miss to his already-substantial collection. The score may have been 4-2 and there may only have been one minute remaining in the Champions League group stage match, but this was big.
Forlán had arrived at Old Trafford in the January of 2002 and, eight months and 27 appearances later, had still to get on the scoresheet. 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 pleaded with his captain for the chance to finally cast aside his goal drought demons. Anything but a rippling of the net would surely have been the final nail in the coffin for the then-23-year-old’s United career. Sir Alex Ferguson – a man not known for his patience – was even caught chuckling by the cameras as his flop begged 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 spot kick to the left-hand side of the goal, while the Israeli goalkeeper dived in the opposite direction, and one of the most pumped fists you’ve ever seen punched the autumn Manchester sky in a moment of pure relief.
By that point in his life Diego Forlán was no stranger to pressure. As the son and grandson of Uruguayan international footballers Pablo Forlán and Juan Carlos Corazzo, he had lived in the shadow of success all throughout his childhood. Yet Forlán never worried too much about living up to his surname and didn’t even plan on joining the family business. Instead, as a youngster he initially pursed a professional tennis career.
However, a change of path came about when a horrific 1991 car accident paralysed his sister Alejandra and killed her boyfriend. The family was struggling to afford the treatment until a certain Diego Maradona, a friend of Pablo Forlán, made a donation to help the family afford the mounting medical bills.
They say money talks and it clearly spoke to young Diego, 12 at the time, who decided to dedicate his life to football to help his ailing sister. “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,” she has since said.
So, just like that, he began his bid to become a professional footballer. Although Forlán had always been talented, he started taking football seriously at a later age than most and, therefore, had some catching up to do.
Despite plenty of hard work, a 1995 rejection from AS Nancy – after flying to Europe and spending several months on trial with the French club – showed that the striker’s development still had some way to go. In truth, Forlán probably didn’t deserve that trial with the European side at that stage in his development, but his family’s contacts had been able to earn him a foot in the door. Now he was back to square one and had to let his own play do the talking.
The teenager started afresh across the Río de la Plata border in Argentina, where he had joined up with the youth team of Independiente de Avellaneda and where he refined his craft, eventually earning promotion to the senior team. He made his first team debut at the age of 18 – far older than the noteworthy young debut ages of other world stars – and he performed reasonably well in his four seasons there. By scoring 40 goals in 91 appearances, he attracted interest from some modest European clubs, one of which was Middlesbrough.
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With a move to the north-east English side on the cards, the Uruguayan flew back to Europe in the 2002 winter transfer window for another big move audition. Unlike his experience in France seven years previously, this trip surpassed all expectations as he ended up signing for one of the giants of world football, Manchester United. Since Middlesbrough could not pay the whole £6.9 million transfer fee in one instalment, something which the Red Devils could do, they were able to swoop in and snatch the Independiente player for themselves.
Yet the man nicknamed ‘El Cachavacha’ was clearly out of his depth as he began his United career. His effort and energy could not be faulted, but he charged about like a poisoned rat or like the Tasmanian Devil, rather than occupying the correct spaces, and even when he did manage to get a shot away, they always seemed more likely to land in the car park, go out for a throw-in or smack a spectating granny in the face than pass through the frame of the goal.
Eventually, however, that Champions League night against Maccabi Haifa got Forlán off the mark 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 2003 ban on removing shirts 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 the Uruguayan’s expense while he was misfiring during his first eight months, but most fans admired his effort and the way in which he would try and try, chasing every ball as if he had a third lung. Even his manager commended his work ethic during that troubled spell and the fact that he eventually scored some important goals was one of the feel-good stories of United’s 2002-03 title-winning season. Forlán’s never-give-up attitude was an inspiration to all who have ever felt out of their depth, but who have stayed the course.
Of course, this was not the happy ending to the Diego Forlán story; it was merely the optimistic note on which Act One ended. His impressive spell was bookended by mediocrity.
The 2003-04 campaign got off to another rocky start, with the striker failing to find the back of the net until the 10th match of the league season, in a 3-1 loss to Fulham. After posting a total of just four goals in the whole Premier League campaign, plus two strikes in the Champions League and one in the FA Cup, Forlán was let go the following summer. With Wayne Rooney arriving to plenty of fanfare, there was no place for the well-liked, but frustratingly inconsistent, striker.
There is certainly nothing disgraceful about failing at Manchester United, yet many Old Trafford flops have struggled to bounce back from Sir Alex Ferguson’s rejection over the years. Despite being excellent players – just not Manchester United level players – the likes of Eric Djemba-Djemba, Kléberson, Roy Carroll and Kieran Richardson have all been left so shredded by their Old Trafford experience that they have gone on to struggle at lower levels. Yet Diego Forlán, despite the fact he left Old Trafford at 25-years-old – roughly the same age at which those mentioned above left the club – went on to reach his peak after playing for the Red Devils.
His next destination was Villarreal, a team as different from Manchester United as it is possible to be while remaining in a top European league. With the town boasting a population of just 50,000 people, Forlán all of a sudden had fewer neighbours in 2004-05 than he had fans watching him in 2003-04.
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As he had done when rejected from AS Nancy, Forlán put his head down and went back to work, determined to achieve greatness despite the fact that most armchair pundits already assumed that ship had sailed. 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, the Uruguayan hit the ground running in yellow, scoring in the opening day derby against Valencia, before netting 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, the so-called flop had netted 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, who had at that point scored 21 and 24 goals respectively. Yet El Cachavacha miraculously leapfrogged the Cameroon striker by scoring a hat-trick in a 3-3 draw against Eto’o and co. at the Camp Nou, before netting 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 also-ran to the holder of the legendary Pichichi award and the joint-winner of the 2005 European Golden Boot – along with Thierry Henry.
The Pichichi was an award he would claim 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 Spanish capital in the 2007 summer, following two further stellar seasons for Manuel Pellegrini’s Champions League semi-finalists.
Signed by Los Rojiblancos for £18 million – a fee larger than that paid by Manchester United in 2002 – to fill Fernando Torres’ shoes, Forlán quickly became a fan favourite at the Vicente Calderón. Many Atleticos viewed his arrival with suspicion, wondering how he could possibly lead the line as effectively as El Niño, but Forlán was quick to showcase his talents, netting in his first four UEFA Cup matches, scoring five times in his first nine La Liga appearances and proving that he was one of the best two-footed players in the game.
His decent return of 16 top flight goals that year was capped off with his goal in the 1-0 win over Deportivo La Coruña in the penultimate weekend of the season, a net ripple which ensured Atlético’s first qualification for the Champions League since the 1996-97 season. He was only just getting started, but had already etched his name into the club’s history books.
Forlán doubled his La Liga goal tally from 16 to 32 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 the May of 2009 to qualify his side for the Champions League once again.
The capital city outfit struggled in that 2009-10 Champions League, while Forlán had a poor start to the season individually and was even benched in October time, but under new coach Quique Sánchez Flores Atlético and Forlán flourished once again in a remarkable second half of the season. He netted 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.
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The Uruguayan was exceptional in that final, turning defenders, raising eyebrows and breaking Fulham hearts. In just the 12th minute of the Hamburg final he smacked the post, hinting at what was to come 20 minutes later when he blasted the ball into the net, finishing off a lightning-quick Harlem Globetrotters-eque counter attack 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 marksman-like consistency.
Fulham did pull level, pushing the final into extra-time, where Forlán would truly make his name. In the final minute of the first period he went on a smooth 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 South American 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 2010 summer, then you’d be mistaken. Although already into 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 simply content to qualify for the 2010 edition, but they would exceed all expectations on a collective and individual level. Following a goalless draw in their opener against France, the Atlético man scored two goals against the host nation to effectively secure passage to the last-16.
An assist for an eighth-minute Luis Suárez goal against South Korea got the knockout stages off to an excellent start and the long-haired goalscorer didn’t look back. He then scored a free-kick equaliser in the quarter-final against Ghana – made famous for Suárez’s handball – and also scored a long-range screamer in the semi-final against Holland – although the Dutch would ultimately progress with a 3-2 win.
Los Charrúas would similarly lose 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 such prestigious names as Zinedine Zidane, Lionel Messi, Ronaldo and family friend Diego Maradona.
At the age of 31, Forlán’s name and the term ‘world-class’ were finally mentioned in the same sentence. It seemed that you really could teach an old dog new tricks.
The following summer would herald even more success for Uruguay and their veteran striker, as Forlán followed in his father’s and his grandfather’s footsteps by bringing the Copa América home to Montevideo.
Despite not scoring in the group stage matches 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 to claim his nation’s 15th Copa América title. It made Uruguay the most successful team in the tournament’s history at the expense of hosts Argentina. Nothing could be sweeter.
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And 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 in the last-16 in Brazil. On the club scene, Forlán left Atlético in the summer of 2011, a decision which was more political than it was to do with his form on the pitch.
He was shipped off to Inter Milan, where he was often played out of position and where he 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 an exotic year-and-a-half 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 behind him. He is currently without a club and retirement looms.
When Forlán does announce his retirement from the game, football will have lost one of its greats. While he was certainly a naturally skilful striker, his greatness is largely derived from his attitude and desire to better himself, no matter how much people doubted him, all the while maintaining a friendly smile and an easy-going attitude.
Few footballers have resonated with their fans quite like Diego Forlán. His career trajectory should be an inspiration to us all, as most of us can see a piece of ourselves in the way he has approached his various moves. It is not often that a footballer’s career can provide so many morals for the rest of the population, but there are plenty of lessons to be learned from the career of Cachavacha.
If, for example, you’re planning a career change, but are worried that you’re already too far down one path that changing course would require too much catching up, then remember that Uruguay’s second-top appearance holder and second-top goalscorer was planning a career in tennis until his epiphany at 12-years-old. Starting from the bottom is always going to be tough, but it’s better to be at the bottom of the ladder you want to reach the top of than to be on the top rung of the one you don’t.
And if, for example, you’re handed an unexpected promotion too early on in your career and find yourself out of your depth, keep at it like Forlán did after 26 Manchester United matches and you might eventually get some success. Similarly, don’t worry about the stigma of dropping back down a level, as it is possible to work your way back up to the top at a pace more suited to you.
And if, for example, you feel like you’re climbing the career ladder more slowly than your peers and that you’re behind schedule, keep in mind that Diego Forlán peaked at the age of 31. Most footballers age like cheese once they pass their 30th birthday, but Forlán aged more like a fine wine, proving that we all enjoy professional success at different ages.
Quite simply, if you feel you’re failing in your professional life, remember that Diego Forlán was a late bloomer. Yet his perseverance and hard work afforded him a career few can dream of. Be not afraid of growing slowly, be afraid only of standing still, says an ancient Chinese proverb. Diego Forlán’s career is Exhibit A.
By Euan McTear. Follow @emctear