World Cup Golden Ball brings Forlan full circle

For only the third time in World Cup history, FIFA’s Golden Ball Award for the player of the World Cup has gone to a footballer not involved in the prestigious event that is the World Cup final. The man honoured, Diego Forlan, is a more than worthy winner. No player had more influence or more impact on his team’s fortunes than the man nicknamed ‘Cachabacha’ (after a cartoon witch, no less). While it would be unfair on the other Uruguayans who turned in fine performances to say that the Atletico Madrid striker carried the side to the semi-finals, it seems hard to imagine Uruguay reaching the final four without him. With so many star names failing to live up to their billing, it was left to the 31-year-old from Montevideo to deliver some of the tournament’s finest moments.

Those who had seen little of Forlan since his unglamorous exit from Manchester United could be forgiven for looking at his phenomenal goalscoring record in La Liga, and his opportunist strikes to break the hearts of Liverpool and Fulham en route to winning the Europa League with Atletico, and seeing him as an old-fashioned penalty box poacher. Such a description however, does not come close to describing a player whose super-confident shoot on sight policy, with little respect for distance, produced some of this World Cup’s most electrifying goals. Where others struggled with the idiosyncrasies of the Jabulani, Forlan was rattling in strikes from 30 yards as early as Uruguay’s second game against hosts South Africa – a game in which he also scored with a penalty struck with pinpoint precision into the top corner.

The word ‘talisman’ seems to be bandied around with alarming regularity in football today, but Forlan is the real deal, combining a tireless work rate with searing intelligence and vision to spot the runs of teammates. When things looked bleak for Uruguay, Forlan was invariably the man who came to their rescue, driving them forward. His swerving, venomous free kick brought them back from the dead in spectacular fashion in the quarter-final with Ghana, and the semi final saw his willingness to shoot from anywhere rewarded as he dragged a Uruguay shell-shocked from Giovanni van Bronckhorst’s 40-yard opener back to parity. Even in the third-place play-off, he put the South Americans ahead by gambling with a first time, bobbling volley and struck the crossbar with another rasping free-kick with the last kick of the game.

Some credit for the striker’s performances must go to Uruguay Coach Oscar Tabarez, who saw fit to build his team around his star player in a way that Fabio Capello tried and singularly failed to achieve with Wayne Rooney. In La Celeste’s opening game with France, Forlan, deployed as an out and out marksman, toiled to little effect with scant service from a deep lying midfield. Rectifying this from the team’s next game onwards, Tabarez deployed the Atletico man in a slightly more withdrawn role behind the strikers. Suddenly, the supply line was fixed, as Forlan became the team’s creative hub through which all of their best attacking play flowed, superbly linking the play between a well-organised back seven and the attacking talents of Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani.

Recognition should also go to Uruguay’s other star performers – the holding midfield duo of Diego Perez and Egidio Arevalo Rios gave Cachabacha the protection to make his marauding runs from deep, while able support came from attacking full backs Maxi Pereira and Jorge Fucile. The pace and killer instinct of Suarez complimented Forlan’s creativity well, especially during the tournament’s latter stages, when Tabarez again paired them as an out and out strike partnership.

Diego Forlan long ago exorcised the demons of his much-maligned stint at Old Trafford. Few players enjoy the meteoric rise from punch line to the World Cup’s best player. The striker has twice earned the Golden Boot as Europe’s deadliest marksman for his scoring exploits in Spain, but 2010 will forever be his crowning glory, in hauling a tiny nation of just over three million people to within a whisker of recapturing the distant glory of that very first World Cup. He will be 35 by the time the first whistle blows at Brazil 2014, and there is a good chance we will not see him at another World Cup but the Golden Ball is fitting punctuation to the career of one of the game’s greatest strikers.

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