Diego Forlan thumped his right boot against the advertising hoarding in Suwon. The 23-year-old striker's frustration was understandable. He had just spurned a glorious chance to score for Uruguay against Senegal. It was ultimately one that cost his country a 4-3 victory and a place in the Round of 16 of the 2002 FIFA World Cup Korea/Japan™.
That miss was unsurprising to the Manchester United fans who had just begun watching him on a regular basis. Forlan, after all, was in the midst of a run of 27 goalless games before he broke his duck for the club. Many back in June 2002 might have questioned whether the player would ever appear on football's most prestigious stage again. Nobody envisaged that he would one day illuminate it.
But that is exactly what Forlan, whose country failed to qualify for the 2006 finals, did in South Africa. And his remarkable efforts in the Celeste jersey have been rewarded with the FIFA World Cup's top individual prize, the adidas Golden Ball previously won by the likes of Diego Maradona, Romario, Ronaldo and Zinedine Zidane.
Forlan scored five goals during the competition to go second on his country's list of all-time leading marksmen and propel Uruguay on an unforeseen run to the semi-finals. That, along with his cute through-balls and clever movement, proved enough to earn him 23.4 per cent of the vote, which was made by members of the media during the Final between Spain and the Netherlands. Wesley Sneijder and David Villa, with 21.8 per cent and 16.9 per cent respectively, seized the adidas Silver and Bronze Balls respectively.
"It is as amazing as it is unexpected," enthused Forlan after becoming the first recipient of the adidas Golden Ball to have not played in the Final. "I never thought something like this would be possible. I might have dreamt about competing for the Golden Boot, which would have been conceivable, but to be named the best player is just incredible. I will enjoy it. I am happy but I know I owe this to the spectacular accomplishments of the whole team. It's a prize that demonstrates what a good time it is for Uruguayan football."
Uruguay's success story seemed hugely unlikely heading into the penultimate round of South American qualifying. The out-of-sorts Celeste faced an uphill struggle to finish fifth in the ten-team group and duly go into a play-off for a place in South Africa. Sixty-eight minutes into their game in Ecuador, that uphill struggle was further complicated when the hosts took the lead. Uruguay required victory and, after Luis Suarez equalised, Forlan held his nerve and dispatched a late penalty to snatch the result that ultimately proved enough to book a play-off date with Costa Rica, which they won.
Still, Uruguay were outsiders to advance from a group that featured France and Mexico, two teams above them on the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, and a South Africa side buoyed by their vibrant fans and the fact that no host nation had ever failed to reach the knockout phase. After a goalless draw with France, in which Forlan impressed with his elusive movement and ability to hold the ball up, the Atletico Madrid player scored a superb goal to break the deadlock against South Africa. He then coolly buried a penalty to put the game beyond Bafana Bafana's reach en route to a 3-0 victory.
Forlan had a hand in the Suarez goal that secured Uruguay victory over Mexico and top spot in their pool, and then he created his strike partner's first in a 2-1 defeat of Korea Republic in the Round of 16. The former Independiente attacker then excelled against Ghana in the last eight, scoring a sumptuous free-kick in a 1-1 draw, and scoring his side's first penalty in the shoot-out they won 4-2.
Uruguay fell 3-2 to the Netherlands in the last four. Defeat was, however, no reflection on Forlan's performance. With the South Americans losing 1-0 and his team-mates' heads down, he thumped home another brilliant goal from distance to bring them back into the game, and was an incessant source of torment to the Dutch thereafter. The match for third place was a parallel tale: Uruguay lost, Forlan thrived. His penchant for wonder goals continued, this time an exquisite volley putting Las Charrúas 2-1 up before Joachim Low's side rallied for a 3-2 victory.
Uruguay's players had narrowly missed out on medals, but one prize would land in the hands of their blond forward. The stacked sanctuary of FIFA World Cup greats had a new, unexpected entrant.