Whilst the names of Luis Suárez and Edinson Cavani would, in all probability, be the initial responses to any request to name the top Uruguayan strikers, surely close behind would come Diego Forlán – and if he doesn’t, he certainly should. Appearing for La Celeste, Suarez scored 55 goals, with Cavani netting 46. Not far behind though is Forlán with 36. As with the other two strikers, as well as succeeding in South America, Forlán made his name in a number of Europe’s top leagues where competition is fierce, and goals are at a premium. From there trips to Japan, back to South America and then India and Hong Kong with an accompanying chorus of goals showed that regardless of location, league and language, putting the ball into the back of the net is of universal value.
Diego Forlán was born in May 1979 in Montevideo and, after beginning his professional career in Argentina, he would play in the English Premier League, La Liga and Serie A, scoring goals as he went. He would also be awarded the FIFA Golden Ball as the best player in the 2010 World Cup, and become his country’s most capped player. Any discussion of Uruguay’s top strikers must surely include Diego Forlán, and a closer examination of his career merely underscores that assertion.
A four-season spell with Independiente set the ball rolling. Although he only played a couple of games in his first season there, without troubling the scorers, across the following three seasons, Forlán built a reputation as a regular goalscorer, with a rate of finding the net that improved as he went along. Seven goals from 24 games was decent if hardly spectacular in 1999-2000, but this improved to 20 in 42 games and then 13 in just 23. It was enough to persuade Sir Alex Ferguson to take him to Manchester United.
The transfer may not have done the striker any favours. Dropping into the rough and tumble of Premier League football can be an unsettling time for any player and as this was Forlán’s first playing experience outside of South America, it’s perhaps not surprising that he didn’t flourish. Despite that and a return of just 17 goals in a shade less than a century of appearances, he still collected a Premier League winner’s medal in 2002-03 season and an FA Cup winner’s medal the following year. If the English game may not have suited the talents of the Uruguayan, his next move was certainly more to his taste.
Moving to La Liga, and returning to a more familiar culture with a language he was comfortable with, produced probably the best and certainly most productive period of Forlán’s career. Joining Villareal in 2004, he struck top form immediately, scoring an outstanding 25 goals in 39 games across all competitions. As well as the goals lifting the club into third place and a debut season in the Champions League, it took the Intertoto Cup to Villareal. Forlán won the Pichichi award for the league’s top scorer, and shared the UEFA Golden Shoe as the top scorer across the continent. He was also awarded the Trofeo given to the top Latin player in La Liga for the season. If Old Trafford had been a downturn, the Yellow Submarine was certainly no dive for Diego Forlán. Villareal were hardly one of the premier clubs in Spain, and to be the country’s leading marksman when playing for them was remarkable.
Unsurprisingly, as his reputation grew, defences were paying more attention to the Uruguayan striker and in the following season, his strike rate dipped a little, netting 13 goals from 47 games. His situation wasn’t helped by disruption at the cub. The next season would be a real test, but form and goals returned as he secured a highly respectable 21 strikes at a rate of a goal every other game. It was enough to see him catapulted into an almost impossible position.
In June 2007, no longer able to resist the money offered by the Premier League, Atlético Madrid sold Fernando Torres to Liverpool and decided that Diego Forlán was the man to replace him at the Vicente Calderón. A fee of €21 million was agreed and the Uruguayan had the mammoth task of making the loss of El Niño appear insignificant. No pressure then!
Although adjusting to a different club and a new way of playing under the individualistic promptings of Diego Simeone, 23 goals in his first season was entirely satisfactory, but in 2008-09, he would improve greatly on that as he and the team became more accustomed to each other. No less than 35 strikes in just 45 appearances took him to another Pichichi award and, this time, sole ownership of the European Golden Shoe. A further 28 goals the following season saw Atleti win the Europa League, with Forlán’s brace being the deciding factor in the win over Fulham. Understandably, he was named as UEFA Europa League Final Man of The Match.
In the summer, along with his Uruguayan colleagues, Forlán travelled to South Africa for the 2010 World Cup. It would be one of the country’s most successful runs in the tournament of recent years, and a personal triumph for the striker. Uruguay would finish fourth, and as well as sharing the title of top scorer in the tournament, Forlán would be awarded the Golden Ball as the outstanding player, be selected for the FIFA Dream Team and his right-footed volley from the edge of the penalty area against Germany was judged the Goal of the Tournament.
Later, returning to club football, he would help Atlético win the UEFA Super Cup, defeating Inter Milan in the final. The new season, however, would see his worst goalscoring return in his time with the club. Ten goals in more than 40 games suggested a downturn. Now 32 years old, when Inter approached the Spanish club with a view to taking Forlán to Lombardy to replace the departing Samuel Eto’o, Simeone took the deal and Diego Forlán moved to his fourth different league, joining Serie A on a two-year deal. Unsurprisingly, given his age, he couldn’t recapture the form and strike he enjoyed in Spain.
In that summer’s Copa América, held in Argentina, Forlán demonstrated that his abilities on the international stage hadn’t been dulled by the advancing years. He played in every game for Uruguay as La Celeste went through the tournament undefeated. Indeed, Forlán would net two of the three goals in the final that ensured the trophy would go to Montevideo.
After the summer of success, things started brightly enough in Serie A. On his debut for the Nerazzurri, Forlán scored in a 4-3 victory over Palermo. It would, however, be the highpoint of an otherwise disappointing and frustrating time for the striker. He would only score one more goal, and at the end of the season, Inter would release him from his second year. The player would lament his time with the club, explaining his lack of goals to being played out of position, and the expectations to be able to replace Eto’o as he had successfully done with Torres.
At 33, it was time to quit Europe, and release from the Nerazzurri contract led to a move from Internazionale in Italy’s Serie A to Internacional in Brazil’s Série A. A first season return of five goals in 19 games improved to 17 in 36 in the second year, but even in the less physically demanding Brazilian league, 35-year-old legs were finding it difficult, and an opportunity to travel to Japan offered a prospect of greater longevity with a move to Cerezo Osaka. It was hardly a successful experience. Despite scoring 17 times in his 18 months with the club, Osaka were relegated at the end of his first term there and then failed to regain their status. An emotional return to Peñarol, his boyhood club, offered a sentimental journey back home and an 18 month contract not only brought eight goals, but it also led to the club lifting the championship trophy.
Despite the triumph, it had only been a brief agreement to play there, and in an emotional press conference afterwards, Forlán announced he would be leaving the club. Brief sojourns in India with Mumbai City and then Hong Kong with Kitchee followed – with five goals at each club – before he played his final professional game in May 2018, less than a week before his 39th birthday.
There’s little doubt that Luis Suárez and Edinson Cavani are more celebrated as strikers in the modern game, but neither has ever won the FIFA World Cup Golden Boot. Diego Forlán has. It’s true that Suárez has won the UEFA Golden Shoe, as has Forlán, but Cavani has yet to achieve the accolade. Suárez has also won the Pichichi title once. Forlán did so on two occasions, and whilst Suárez achieved the title playing for a star-studded Barcelona team, Forlán won his whilst at Villareal and then when featuring for an Atlético Madrid side struggling to recover from the loss of Fernando Torres. So, perhaps if someone asks about the top Uruguayan striker, remember the career and achievements of Diego Forlán, the much-travelled and most underrated of Uruguayan goal scorers