Diego Forlan, the ‘witch’ who cast his spell on Hong Kong, points to powers of perseverance after Kitchee swansong
The Uruguayan’s career looks to have come to an end with his final game for Hong Kong champions Kitchee, and he should be remembered as the ultimate example of perseverance
Eyes looking down at the turf, Diego Forlan swung his right leg and hoped for the best.
Manchester United were 4-2 up against Israeli minnows Maccabi Haifa, strolling to a routine Champions League win at Old Trafford with one minute remaining.
Signed for £7.5 million (US$10.18 million) from cash-strapped Independiente in the 2002 January transfer window, Forlan was expected to be Alex Ferguson’s next masterstroke signing having shone in Argentina, but things hadn’t quite worked out that way.
Then 23 years old, the Uruguayan had gone 26 games and eight months without a goal, so when David Beckham was brought down in the box, Forlan pleaded with his captain to hand him the ball.
Then it hit the back of the net in front of the Stretford End and Forlan pumped his fist in the air.
“Training, sacrifice and hard work, that’s the only secret,” Forlan told the South China Morning Post, when asked how he has dealt with setbacks and challenges in his career.
It was a moment that summed up a footballer who won’t be remembered as one of the game’s greats, but as a symbol of perseverance.
After Forlan played for possibly the last time on Sunday, in a 2-0 win for Hong Kong Premier League champions Kitchee against Yuen Long, I can’t help but remember his moment of pure relief on that September 2002 night in Manchester.
I still have a framed photograph of his penalty at my parents’ house; it speaks to something more than football, to the perseverance of the human spirit.
Mention that 26-game goalless streak, more than 15 years on, and Forlan still bristles a little bit, showing he has never quite lost the fiery streak that once saw him kick everything in sight in the United dressing after being substituted, despite scoring, for an 18-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo in a win against Portsmouth.
“Yeah, but it was not 27 games before I scored, it was less because I was on the bench. It was only five or 10 minutes every game,” he said. “It wasn’t a lot of pressure.”
Forlan played for 56 minutes at Mong Kok Stadium, before coming off to a standing ovation and a guard of honour from his Kitchee teammates.
If it is the final act of his footballing career, he will be remembered fondly.
United supporters still sing “he came from Uruguay, he made the Scousers cry” after Forlan’s two goals earned a rare victory against Liverpool at Anfield in December 2002.
“I did really well at United, I scored really important goals,” said Forlan on Sunday.
It wasn’t always like that. Why get Forlan on the back of your shirt when you could have “Beckham”, or “Giggs” or “Scholes”, people would ask.
Something about him appealed to me, though, and I still don’t quite know what it was. There was a boyish charm to admire about a player who celebrated a late long-range winner at home against Southampton in November 2002 so fervently that he couldn’t get his rain-soaked shirt back on after ripping it off and twirling it around his head.
Even funnier was the sight of him, bare chested, charging around the pitch trying to win the ball back after the game had kicked off again.
Ferguson was not impressed; similarly when Forlan wore the wrong studs and slipped in front of goal in a 1-0 defeat at Chelsea on the opening day of the 2004-05 season.
“I rushed to the dressing room to change boots but Ferguson caught me,” Forlan said, recalling the incident in 2009. “He grabbed the boots and threw them. That was my last game for United.”
Forlan was shipped off to Villarreal in Spain. He scored just 10 goals in 63 league appearances for United, and 17 in 98 total appearances. He still feels he never got a fair shake at Old Trafford.
He could have faded into obscurity in La Liga. But true to his character, Forlan pulled up his socks and finished with the Golden Shoe award for most goals in Europe that season.
His form in front of goal earned him a move to Atletico Madrid, where he won the Golden Shoe again in 2009 and the Europa League the following year when he was at the peak of his powers.
While he won Premier League and FA Cup winner’s medals with United, his contributions were limited. The 2-1 victory against Fulham in Europe, where he scored both of Atletico’s goals, was the crowning glory of his club career, a richly deserved reward for his efforts.
To anyone who still doubted his ability, Forlan had the last laugh later that summer at the 2010 World Cup. He was player of the tournament and top scorer in South Africa, as Uruguay marched to a fourth-placed finish.
International glory came the following summer at the 2011 Copa America, when he helped drive Uruguay to the trophy for the first time since 1995.
And so, fittingly, Forlan goes out a winner in Hong Kong with Kitchee.
“It’s very nice, I’m very happy. We achieved the goal of being champions,” he said. “It’s been great, all the games with the teammates, sharing with them.”
He did leave the door open, saying he could return to Hong Kong “if there’s a good offer” on the table. “It’s a very nice place to come, but it doesn’t depend on me, you know,” he added. “At the moment, nobody has offered me anything.”
With his 39th birthday looming this week, it’s been a good run either way for the man affectionately nicknamed “El Cachavacha” after his likeness to an Argentine cartoon witch – he has cast his spell on all of us.