Considering all he went on to achieve in his career, it seems hard to believe that Diego Forlán was something of a joke when he first arrived in European football.
A January 2002 signing from Independiente by Manchester United, he initially struggled to adapt to the Premier League and as United ended the season trophyless, a lot of attention was drawn to Forlán’s inability to find the back of the net.
It eventually took him 21 games to break his duck for United, scoring a penalty in a routine Champions League win over Maccabi Haifa. Although his time at Old Trafford wasn’t a success overall, he is remembered as something of a cult hero, mostly for his two goals in a win against Liverpool at Anfield in December 2002.
Having dropped out of the first team picture towards the end of the 2003-04 season, it was no real surprise when he moved on at the start of the following campaign, eventually signing for Villarreal for a fee of €3.2m.
Under Manuel Pellegrini, Villarreal had a side brimming with South American talent such as Juan Pablo Sorín, languid playmaker Juan Román Riquelme and soon-to-be-Spanish midfielder Marcos Senna. Forlán fitted in right away, scoring after 78 minutes of his debut. He really hit his stride in the midway point of the season – scoring ten goals in eight games between December and the start of February. The highlight of that run was a superb double in a 3-0 hammering of champions-elect Barcelona, the first of which saw Forlán provide an emphatic finish to a brilliant team move.
Forlán clearly enjoyed playing against the Catalan side that season, in the penultimate game of the campaign, Villarreal went to the Camp Nou and took a 2-0 lead thanks to a brilliant long-range strike from the Uruguayan, who then doubled the advantage from the penalty spot. Barca turned it around to lead 3-2, but he completed his hat-trick with a lob over a stranded Víctor Valdés. Then the following week, he scored two more in a 4-1 win over Levante which took him to 25 for the season and ensured he edged out Samuel Eto’o for both the Pichichi and the European Golden Shoe.
The following season wasn’t as successful on the individual front, Forlán managed 13 goals in 47 appearances across all competitions, but of those, two were crucial away goals against Rangers and Inter which helped Villarreal through to the semi-finals of the Champions League, where they lost to Arsenal.
After the 2006-07 season, where Forlán scored 19 league goals, he was on the move again, this time to Atlético Madrid, who paid a reported €21m for his services. At the Vicente Calderón, he formed a new strike partnership with rising Argentine star Sergio Agüero and scored 16 goals to take his new club back into the Champions League for the first time in a decade.
The following campaign was another one to remember as he once again scooped the Pichichi and European Golden Shoe, making him the only man to achieve the feat with two different clubs.
It didn’t start out particularly promisingly, as after a double on the opening day of the season, Forlán missed the following five games through international duty and injury and when he returned he only scored once in the following four games.
Atlético were inconsistent, but when Forlán and Agüero were on form, few could live with them. A prime example of this was one of the season’s best games, a 4-3 win over eventual Treble winners Barcelona, where both players hit braces.
In the final eight games of the season, Forlán scored twelve times including vital winners against Espanyol and Valencia, followed by a hat-trick in a 4-1 win in Bilbao which helped Atleti clinch that all-important fourth spot.
Then in the 2009-10 season he was truly Atleti’s man for the big occasion. After crashing out of the Champions League group stages, they made it to the semi-finals of the Europa League, where he scored the only goal of the first leg against Liverpool and then in extra time of the second leg, got the vital away goal which took Atleti through to the final in Hamburg.
Atleti were strong favourites, but their opponents Fulham were a resilient side, who had already pulled off several giant-killing acts on their way to the showpiece. Although Forlán put them in front in the first half, they were soon pegged back and were taken to extra time again. With only four minutes of the game remaining, Agüero crossed and Forlán supplied the vital touch which won Atleti their first trophy since their 1996 double.
Buoyant from his success with Atleti, Forlán then headed to the 2010 World Cup with Uruguay. He scored twice in the 3-0 win over hosts South Africa and then added a brilliant free kick in the quarter-final against Ghana, followed up by long-range goals in the semi-final defeat by the Netherlands and the third-place play-off against Germany. He finished as the joint-top goalscorer and also won the Golden Ball as player of the tournament.
The 2010-11 season was a difficult one for both Forlán and Atlético and after a successful Copa America, where he became his country’s most-capped player and won his first international trophy, he left Spain to join Inter.
He didn’t stay in Italy long and became something of a globetrotter during the final few years of his career, spending eighteen months at Internacional in Brazil, a stint in the J-League with Cerezo Osaka, a year at boyhood club Peñarol in Monteviedo before short-term stays at Mumbai City in India and Kitchee in Hong Kong, after which he announced his retirement in 2019.
At the end of last year, he took his first steps into management when he was appointed coach of Peñarol. Few would bet against him making a success of that too and perhaps someday ending up on a La Liga bench.