x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Family fortunes for Forlan

Gabriele Marcotti on the Uruguayan striker who has finally cast aside the shadow of his father.

Diego Forlan has finally come into his own and will play for Uruguay against Brazil tonight.
Diego Forlan has finally come into his own and will play for Uruguay against Brazil tonight.

"Forlan's kid". That's what they called him until very recently. And it made sense. He wasn't "Forlan" ... his dad was. He didn't play in two World Cups ... his dad did. He didn't lead the club he supported as a boy - Penarol - to seven Uruguay titles, a Copa Libertadores and Club World Cup... his dad did. He didn't move to Brazil, go toe-to-toe with Pele for the Sao Paulo state championship and ultimately persuade Brazilians to love - of all people - a Uruguayan... his dad did.

That is the shadow which loomed over Diego Forlan for much of his career. Genetics and education made Forlan the footballer, but they also burdened him with the weight of expectation. You can't escape your ancestry, you're not going to run from your flesh and blood. But you can, at least, put some distance between yourselves. And that's what he did at the age of 17, leaving Penarol, the club where his dad had been a hero, to join Independiente de Avallaneda in Argentina.

That's where the corner was turned. Thirty-three goals 18 months after becoming a regular showed he could stand on his own two feet. The shadow was still there, of course, but it came to him down a telephone line, a weekly call in which his dad would impart wisdom from a distance. It was Pablo who told him to seize the chance and move to England in Jan 2002. He had made the leap into the unknown, moving to Brazil 32 years earlier, back when the world was a much bigger place.

Now it was Diego's turn to roll the dice and that meant joining the Premier League and doing so at its highest level: Manchester United. This was going to be his Sao Paulo. Except it wasn't. English football history will remember him as one of the worst strikers to wear a United shirt. Ten goals in 63 league appearances. Not what you expect for £6.9million (Dh40.7m). The verdict from the pundits and the fans was pretty near unanimous: Forlan was a flop and, perhaps, only the fact that Juan Sebastian Veron was his contemporary spared him further bile.

But that only told part of the story. Amidst the disappointment, there were highs, like the two goals he scored against Liverpool at Anfield or the injury-time winner he scored against Chelsea which sent United on their way to the title. In the end, if you dissect the numbers differently, things were not as bad they seemed: one goal every two and a half games, based on goals per minute, a decent return.

But not nearly enough to be his own man. He was still "Forlan's kid", which is why he seized the chance to move to Spain. Ambitious upstarts Villarreal were to be his renaissance. He scored 54 goals in three seasons, relaunching his Uruguay career along the way. Somewhere, Pablo must have been smiling: Forlan's kid was coming into his own. From there, in the summer of 2007, it was on to Atletico Madrid. Bigger stage, bigger demands. But he didn't stop: 16 goals in his debut season and an incredible 32 this past year. Enough to help him win the Golden Boot.

The shadow was still there, but now it was a nurturing force, cocooning him in confidence. The same confidence which has helped him push Uruguay into contention for a spot in South Africa. Tonight at the Centenario Stadium in Montevideo they face Brazil, almost as big a task as there is in the international game. But whatever happens, he knows one thing for sure: he's no longer just "Forlan's kid".