Diego Forlan is one of the leading lights of Uruguayan and South American football. During the course of a career in which he has played for Independiente de Avellaneda, Manchester United, Villarreal and Atletico Madrid, the blond-haired front man has become a deadly striker and the figurehead of an ambitious Charrúa side aiming to achieve big things at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™.
A bubbly character on and off the pitch, the free-scoring No9 chatted to FIFA.com about the challenges facing his beloved Atleti, his hopes for South Africa 2010 and his passion for the game of tennis.
FIFA.com: Diego, how would you sum up Uruguay’s South Africa 2010 qualifying campaign?
Diego Forlan: It was tough, as they always are in South America. We played some good football at times and collected points but there were other times when we felt we were out of it. We lacked consistency but we qualified in the end and that’s what counts.
What was the turning point?
The Ecuador match was the decisive game. We were playing at altitude against a very tough team who were also going for a place at South Africa, and we went out and gave our best performance of the competition. That’s the game that clinched it for us, though the matches against Argentina and Costa Rica after that were really tough.
We play tough. We’ve been playing that way for years and it’s part of the national team’s make-up. Uruguay aren’t going to change the way they play now.
Then came the FIFA World Cup draw. How did you find out who you were drawn against and what do you think about the group?
I was sitting on a plane with my Atletico team-mates, waiting to take off. It was a Friday and we had an away game, and all the players who are going to the World Cup were getting text messages. Maxi Rodriguez was getting them faster than everyone else and he was keeping me posted. It’s a very hard group (Uruguay have been drawn in Group A with South Africa, Mexico and France) but we were in the third pot and were always going to come up against some really strong teams. We know Uruguay are never going to start as favourites but we’re there and we’re not ruling anything out.
What is your opinion of Uruguay coach Oscar Tabarez?
I have a very high opinion of him. The coaching staff have been really professional since he arrived, arranging friendlies from before the 2006 World Cup, and the results of that work can be seen now. That shows you what kind of a coach Tabarez is. He’s already been to one World Cup (Italy 1990) and obviously that’s going to help us in South Africa.
Uruguay teams have always been known for their garra, their grit and determination. Is that still the case or is it a myth?
It’s not a myth. We play tough. We’ve been playing that way for years and it’s part of the national team’s make-up. Uruguay aren’t going to change the way they play now. That said, we do have different types of players, young players with a lot of quality. We can play good football, as we showed in some of our qualifiers and we hope to show again at the World Cup.
How would you describe the other South American sides you faced during the qualifiers?
They all play different types of football. You know what you’re going to get with Argentina, for example. People have their doubts about them at the moment but they’re still a powerful side with some fantastic players and I’m sure they’ll be up there with all the big teams. Brazil will be there too, no question, and Chile have been doing really well with [Marcelo] Bielsa. He’s put together a young side and they had a great tournament. Paraguay have a very definite style which has always worked for them, as we saw again this time.
What would be a successful South Africa 2010 for you?
I don’t even want to think about it. The important thing is to qualify from the group and then see who we get in the next round. Let’s play the first game, see how it goes and then we’ll know what our chances are.
South Africa 2010 is just around the corner. How easy is it for you to focus on your club football?
It’s still a long way away so it’s easy for me to concentrate on Atletico’s objectives at the moment. We’ve got the Copa del Rey, the league and the Europa League. They are all important tournaments and we need to be focused on them. The World Cup comes at the end of the season but the short-term goals are all at club level. At least I don’t have the extra pressure of playing qualifying games with Uruguay now. That was intense.
I’m still a front man but I play more of a creative role. I think I’ve become a better player.
Atletico’s form has been very up and down this season. What are the club’s objectives?
Obviously the Cup has become the most important thing right now. And then there’s the Europa League, which is about to enter its final stages. We’re right in there for that too. As for the league, we need to find some consistency, which we haven’t so far. We need to get some points together and see where we end up.
What is the difference between the Diego Forlan of today and the young player we saw at Korea/Japan 2002?
I’ve spent a lot of time in Europe and I’ve gained much more experience in the process. I was more of an out-and-out striker then, whereas now I’m still a front man but I play more of a creative role. I think I’ve become a better player since then.
You nearly made to the last 16 at Korea/Japan 2002. Do you still look back on that group match with Senegal and think about what might have been?
That was a real shame. We’d gone 3-0 down after a terrible first half and we came back to level at 3-3 in the second only to miss a great chance in the last minute. It was an incredible miss. We had a place in the next round in our hands and we let it slip.
Quite a few famous South American players have decided to return home in the last few months. Are you planning to do the same?
I’d like to return to Argentina, to Independiente. It’s a club I love and it would be great to have the chance to go back. I’d love to go to Sao Paulo in Brazil for my dad as well. That’s where he played. But I’m happy at Atletico right now and my contract runs until 2013. I’m not planning anything in the short term.
Your wife is Argentinian and there is a chance Uruguay might play La Albiceleste in the second round. Do you foresee any marital problems?
No, not at all (laughs). I need to ask her who she’s going to be supporting though.
Finally, we know you love your tennis. Which player would you compare yourself to on court?
Oh, that’s a tough one. I’m left-handed so obviously I identify myself with Rafael Nadal. I like to chase after every ball and not give anything up, though obviously I’m not at the same level as he is. I’m a really bad loser though. I challenge lots of calls!