x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Farewell to Forlan, the Diego with elegance

The Uruguay forward has been his team's talisman in the tournament; creator, craftsman and finisher, writes Richard Jolly

Diego Forlan, right, is Uruguay's top scorer at the tournament with four goals.
Diego Forlan, right, is Uruguay's top scorer at the tournament with four goals.

At times, the surname almost became redundant. But, lest we forget, there has been more than one Diego at this World Cup. Indeed, there have been four in the Uruguay squad alone, though one has assumed an elegant yet energetic dominance. Diego Forlan has spent the past month staging his own Maradona impersonation, looking to inspire an otherwise unglamorous South American side to glory. Last night, he came so close.

It has been a valiant bid, halted only at the penultimate hurdle. The man with the golden locks has shown a golden touch as well. When Uruguay required a goal in their first World Cup semi-final for 40 years, the identity of the scorer was predictable: Forlan. While Diego Lugano is the designated captain, Forlan's leadership credentials were apparent long before the central defender was ruled out of last night's game and the armband granted to him.

He has been irrepressible, dropping deep to instigate attacks and taking virtually every set-piece in enemy territory. A free-kick nestled in the Ghana net on Friday and another threatened a repeat yesterday against Holland. He is finisher and footballer, scorer and supplier, creator and craftsman. Either a striker's brief was too restrictive or manager Oscar Tabarez has recognised that Forlan is more inventive than his midfielders and afforded him a roaming role.

He was, officially at least, in a more advanced position in Cape Town, though he collected possession near the centre circle before moving forward to level. Much as Maarten Stekelenburg could be faulted, Forlan should be applauded. His already weighty responsibilities had been increased; Lugano's absence added to his seniority, while his usual partner in crime, Luis Suarez, celebrated in Uruguay and vilified abroad, was banned.

Stekelenburg, an Ajax teammate of Suarez, had texted the suspended striker to suggest that his impromptu display of goalkeeping against Ghana qualified him for the Lev Yashin award for the competition's outstanding shot-stopper; Forlan's goal suggested the Dutch No 1 is not a contender. The pressure may have affected his performance; not Forlan's. Like the Chilean Ivan Zamorano in 1998, a striker from the same continent but of an earlier generation, it has galvanised him; this is the striker as talisman, a blur of commitment and quality, projecting the merits of an otherwise overlooked country on the global stage.

Uruguay's distant pedigree can obscure the improbability of their progress. Their population, like those of Liberia and Lithuania, is around 3.5 million. But Tabarez's team are a resilient bunch. The two banks of four stayed understandably deep for the first 70 minutes, defenders and defensive midfielders working in harness with each other to protect Fernando Mulsera's goal. Holland had the burden of favouritism, Uruguay the status of underdogs that seems to appeal to their psyche.

It took a stroke of fortune at a pivotal point. Wesley Sneijder's goal continued a glorious run, but it took a decisive touch off Maxi Pereira, the outstanding right-back, and went through the legs of Robin van Persie, who was borderline offside. Reprieved against the Ghanaians, when Asamoah Gyan's 120th-minute penalty hit the bar, there was no such stay of execution for Uruguay this time: Arjen Robben promptly added a third.

Damned with faint praise, they can nonetheless call upon talents of the calibre of Robben, Sneijder and Van Persie. Shorn of Suarez, Uruguay were reliant upon Forlan. So the Dutch blend of flair and functionality will take them to Johannesburg. Uruguay head to Port Elizabeth. Having finished fifth in their qualifying campaign, they are their continent's final representatives, outlasting Chile and Paraguay and, more surprisingly, Brazil and Argentina. It started off as South Africa's World Cup. Then it appeared to become South America's. Now, definitively, it is Europe's.

sports@thenational.ae