Forlan a figure of fun no longer

The Uruguay striker has been reborn since leaving Old Trafford, writes Ian Herbert
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The Independent Football

He keeps his shirt on these days and the hair is no longer wrapped up in bun, but it's his propensity for scoring goals – three in this World Cup – that make Diego Forlan unrecognisable from the player who waited so long to put anything other than his locks into a net during his Old Trafford career that they called him "Diego Forlorn".

Forlan succeeding where Wayne Rooney – the man who followed him at Old Trafford – so palpably failed before England went home has formed part of a recurring theme at this tournament: that the Premier League isn't quite the be-all and end-all we seemed to think it was. But it also prompts the question of why the 31-year-old has been able to deliver so clinically on this highest stage. Sir Alex Ferguson paid £7.5m to take Forlan from under the noses of Middlesbrough in January 2002 – then waited eight months and 27 games for him to score his first goal.

Forlan's true colours emerged long before this summer – he has twice won Europe's Golden Shoe; first with Villarreal and second with Atletico Madrid – but one of the keys to the success he and his compatriots have enjoyed in South Africa is the sense of security and kinship that pervades Oscar Tabarez's squad.

Forlan's heart has always been in Montevideo – when his sister was crippled in a car crash, he vowed to become a soccer star to support her – and Tabarez has deliberately minimised the time away for his players. The coach deliberately delayed the flight to South Africa until the last possible moment, with a friendly against Israel in Montevideo on 26 May their only warm-up game.

"The Uruguayan players always want to be with their families. Tabarez knows that extra weeks away will only create a sense of intensity and estrangement," says Uruguayan football writer Javier De Leon. "Amen to that," Rooney would no doubt say. Uruguay's progress also punctures all that talk about the need for a winter break in the Premier League; Uruguay's club season resembles England's and does not include one. Now they find themselves closing in on World Cup glory, which has been beyond contemplation since the unscripted triumphs of 1930 and 1950.

Back to the Forlan mystery, though. Since leaving United for success in La Liga, one of the reasons he has offered for his failure in England – where he returned to single-handedly extinguish the Europa League hopes of Liverpool and Fulham last season – is the type of studs he was asked to use.

"Ferguson wanted me to play with long studs, the interchangeable ones that suit wet pitches, but I feel more comfortable in short ones," he recalled recently. "I agreed to change but I didn't and, against Chelsea, I slipped in front of goal and wasted a chance. Afterwards, I rushed to the dressing room to change boots but Ferguson caught me. He grabbed the boots and threw them. That was my last game for United."

There was obviously more to it than that, although those who regard Forlan's Premier League career as an extended comedy moment forget that his goals for United tended to come at priceless moments. His two strikes in three minutes against Liverpool in December 2002 propelled Forlan from being a random acquisition to one described by Sir Bobby Charlton as "a legend".

Seven weeks later, he scored a last-minute winner as United came from behind to beat Chelsea – equally crucial to United's title. Problem was, it took him nine months before he found the net again – in a 3-1 defeat by Fulham. Ruud van Nistelrooy (150 goals in 210 games) comfortably eclipsed Forlan, of course, but some observers, including Dick Advocaat, Nistelrooy's Holland manager at that time, felt that while Van Nistelrooy was a major scorer of goals, he was not necessarily a scorer of major goals.

Forlan has certainly demonstrated his sense of timing here, with a wonderful strike from wide on the Ghanaian left in Friday night's quarter-final at Soccer City. His natural game is to lie just off a front man, which is why Luis Suarez has profited so much in this tournament. Suarez's one-match ban for the handball which untimately secured safe passage against the Black Stars will hurt Uruguay as Forlan has come to rely on having Suarez alongside as a useful foil.

Bert van Marwijk's side can take huge encouragement, though La Celeste are also now drawing on the huge attention they – a nation of just 3.3m people, about the same as Wales – are commanding as South America's sole remaining representatives in the tournament. In Cape Town on Tuesday, this will further animate the hallmark of this side, the quality known in Montevideo as garra – or grit; the essential requirement for anyone wearing the sky-blue shirt of La Celeste and one Forlan possesses in abundance.

That some in the football universe are so surprised Uruguay are still in business at this stage of the tournament seems to be a source of bemusement for Forlan. "I hear people saying we are outsiders but that depends who you ask," he says. "It doesn't bother us. We know we can make it to the final." So speaks an individual who has been written off once before. Holland would be prudent not to do so again.