World Cup Countdown: 6 Days to Go – Reliving the Fine Career of 2010 Golden Ball Winner Diego Forlan

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In July 2010, as the World Cup in South Africa came to a close, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi had one won Ballon d’Or each. By the end of 2010, Messi would win his second after another incredible individual season with Barcelona, while the pair of G.O.A.T contenders soon had total control of the coveted prize that a decade on they have still yet to relinquish.

But, for a few short weeks in the summer of 2010, it was neither Messi nor Ronaldo who was the best player in the world – both had exited the World Cup before the semi finals with their respective national teams. Instead, that honour went to Diego Forlan.

For Forlan, it capped an incredible few years. The Uruguayan forward had initially found global fame when he joined Manchester United for £6.9m in January 2002 after making a name for himself in South America with an impressive scoring record for Argentine giants Independiente.

Forlan had initially travelled to England to join Middlesbrough, only for United to hijack the move at the 11th hour by offering both Forlan and Independiente a better deal.

Unfortunately, the Montevideo-native was never able to establish himself as anything more than a fringe player and cult hero at Old Trafford. Despite his best efforts, he failed to find the net in any of his first 26 appearances for the club, although the fact that he was often limited to substitute cameos was usually conveniently ignored by United’s most vocal critics.

Fine margins were at play, and history might have been very different had his goal-bound effort late in the 2001/02 Champions League semi final second leg against Bayer Leverkusen not been miraculously cleared off the line. That goal would have put United in the final.

Forlan did score several fine and important goals during his spell at United. An effort from distance against Southampton in November 2002 – only his second Premier League goal – will always be remembered for the shirt-less celebration after which he failed to get his jersey back on and was playing without one for a moment, even winning the ball back while topless.

A brace in a win against Liverpool at Anfield is still sung about by United fans even now. Later that season he also scored a crucial winner against Chelsea at Old Trafford after coming off the bench.

“[I] cannot believe that the fans still sing about me and still come up to me all around the world to remind me of goals I scored there 14 years ago. It happens all the time, in airports and hotels,” Forlan warmly said of his relationship with United fans in a 2017 column for The National.

Competition for places was always Forlan’s problem at United. Between Ruud van Nistelrooy and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, then later Cristiano Ronaldo, Louis Saha and Alan Smith, his chances of getting regular game time were poor and worsening. With United looking to strike a deal with Everton for Wayne Rooney in late August 2004, Forlan’s time had come to its end and he joined Villarreal.

Regular starts were all the superstar goalscorer needed to realise his potential. In his first season in La Liga, Forlan scored 25 times in 38 appearances to land the division’s coveted Pichichi Trophy, awarded to the top scorer each season – he beat Samuel Eto’o (24) and Ronaldo (21) to the prize.

Supported by a talented cast that included Juan Roman Riquelme, Forlan’s goals also helped a Villarreal secure Champions League qualification. He scored fewer goals the next season, but a well organised side led by Manuel Pellegrini made it to the Champions League semi finals.

In the summer of 2007, Forlan replaced Liverpool-bound Fernando Torres as Atletico Madrid’s main goalscorer. He enjoyed a respectable first season in the Spanish capital, but it was the 2008/09 campaign when he exploded, plundering as many as 32 goals in just 33 league games. That secured the second Pichichi Trophy of his career, once more seeing off a prolific Eto’o, and secured his place among the very best forwards in world football.

The following season Forlan scored another 28 goals in all competitions and got his hands on the Europa League trophy, netting twice in the final to beat plucky English underdogs Fulham.

It was around the time he joined Atletico that Forlan’s international career began to get back on track. As a new young player, he’d scored one goal at the 2002 World Cup in Uruguay’s final group game against Senegal after the two-time champions were all but out. With Uruguay failing to qualify in 2006 after losing an intercontinental playoff against Australia, 2010 was Forlan’s first real chance on the global international stage. Given his form for Atletico and Villarreal in the preceding years, the timing for him to shine in South Africa was absolutely perfect.

Uruguay’s star drew a blank in the opening game, a 0-0 draw against France, but was among the goals in a thumping 3-0 win over the hosts a few days later. His brace came from a slightly deeper role after coach Oscar Tabarez opted to bring Edinson Cavani into the team alongside Luis Suarez after the France stalemate and push Forlan back into a ‘number 10’ position. It allowed him to see more of the pitch and handed Uruguay a much sharper attacking edge.

Forlan laid on one of Suarez’s two goals in the Last 16 win over South Korea and was on the scoresheet himself against Ghana in the controversial quarter final. After Suarez had been sent off for blocking a goal-bound effort with his hand and Asamoah Gyan had missed the subsequent penalty, Forlan stepped up and converted his effort from the spot in the shootout as Uruguay won and progressed.

Without the suspended Suarez, Forlan moved back up front for the semi final against the Netherlands, scoring an equaliser to cancel out a famous Giovanni van Bronckhorst screamer. But those efforts were in vain as La Celeste ran out of steam and fell at the penultimate hurdle.

“Personally, I was tired. I’d felt some tightness in my thigh when the game started and, as the match went on, it became more and more difficult,” Forlan said in front of the press after the final whistle. “If I had been better, then I would have more chances.”

But beyond simply wallowing in the disappointment of not making it to a World Cup final when so close, Forlan was also acutely aware of the scale of his achievements for both club and country, commenting, “It’s been the best year of my career. Winning the Europa League with Atletico Madrid and then reaching a semi-final of the World Cup is great.”

Another goal in the third place playoff was not enough to overcome Germany, but Forlan finished the tournament with the Golden Ball award as best player. Four years earlier it had been won by Zinedine Zidane. Four years later it would be won by Lionel Messi, while legends like Diego Maradona, Pele, Johan Cruyff and Garrincha had all been recognised as such in years gone by.

“It’s as great as it is unexpected,” Forlan, ever humble, told “As I’m a striker, I perhaps could have seen myself chasing the Golden Shoe, and in fact I came close. That would have been more normal. But to go from that to winning the prize for the best player…

“I’m enjoying it and I’m delighted, but I’m very aware that it’s the result of the spectacular tournament the team has had. It’s another reward for this positive period for Uruguayan football.”

Aged 31, Forlan’s career began to wind down after 2010. By 2011, when Uruguay’s golden generation translated their World Cup promise into continental success by winning the Copa America, Suarez was rapidly emerging as the new national team hero. It was the youngster who walked away with the best player award, although Forlan scored twice in the final.

After scoring single figures in a league season in 2010/11 for the first time since his days in England, Forlan left Atletico to join Inter for the start of a globetrotting journeyman existence. By 2012, he had joined Brazilian side Internacional, followed by spells with Cerezko Osaka in Japan, Uruguayan giant Penarol – a first taste of club football in his homeland, Mumbai City in India and most recently Kitchee in Hong Kong. As of the summer of 2018, a 39-year-old Forlan is unattached but still not officially retired.

He remains one of the nicest characters in world football, and in the summer of 2010, he was also the very best player as well.

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