A member of a select band of players to have won an adidas Golden Ball at a FIFA World Cup™ – an accolade bestowed on him at South Africa 2010 – former Uruguay striker Diego Forlan is also something of an authority on world finals qualifying competitions.
One of the leading figures on the Celeste scene since the turn of the millennium, Forlan was a witness to one of the more unusual sequences in world finals qualifying history, as Uruguay contested four consecutive intercontinental play-offs, a hurdle they successfully negotiated on three of those occasions, in 2001, 2009 and 2013.
Who better then than Penarol’s new high-profile signing to discuss the upcoming Preliminary Draw for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia, which takes place in St. Petersburg on Saturday 25 July?
Forlan, who will be attending the event as a Draw Assistant along with former Brazil star Ronaldo and other luminaries, discussed his invitation to the ceremony and much more in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com.
FIFA.com: It was shortly after announcing your retirement from international football that you were invited to represent your country and continent at the Preliminary Draw for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia. That must have been a special moment for you.
Diego Forlan: Yes, it’s an honour. To me, the World Cup means everything. When I was a kid, I used to watch loads of videos of different World Cups. I’d watch them over and over again and I loved them. Now, having had the opportunity to play at and enjoy three World Cups, I’m very proud to be attending an event like the draw on 25 July and to be representing my country. There’s also the fact that I never got the chance to play in St. Petersburg. Everybody’s told me that it’s a great city, one of the most beautiful there is. So I’m keen to go there, and I hope I’ll have the chance to have a look around and get to know the place a bit.
What’s the first thing that springs to mind when you think about the World Cup qualifiers?
(Pauses) There are a lot of things… Obviously, the good times come to mind, and the bad, like in 2005 when we lost to Australia in the play-offs for Germany 2006, which was a tournament I really wanted to play in. But football gave me a second chance and I had the opportunity to go in 2010, which was a spectacular tournament. And from the qualifiers, if there’s one game I remember – one key game – it was a make-or-break match against Ecuador (a 2-1 away win for Uruguay in October 2009). We simply had to win it, and it was in a difficult place to go too, at altitude. We knew it was a huge game and that it was going to be very difficult, which is exactly how it turned out, though we ended up getting a late winner from the spot in the very last minute. As amazing as it might seem, I didn’t know for sure at that stage that it was going to make any difference, but we won all the same and it was a big step for us ahead of the final match against Argentina, where we still had a chance of qualifying directly. As it turned out, we went into the play-offs and beat Costa Rica.
It’s what the whole world is waiting for, what you dreamed about as a child: playing for your national team, singing the national anthem.
Do you think there is a big difference between the way people see the current Uruguay team in South America and, say, the generation before you?
Yes, it’s changed a lot, though Uruguay have always earned respect, both for their history and the quality of players they’ve always had. The change has come about at team level, I think. In the last few years Uruguay have played the big teams at their own game and been the equal of them. People have started to see that, like at the 2010 World Cup.
As someone involved in the whole process, was there a key moment in the shaping of that new mindset?
It came before the 2007 Copa America in Venezuela. That’s where it started. Then came the qualifiers and that game against Ecuador that I was talking about. Amazingly, we won it and that’s what took us to where we are now, with people seeing Uruguay the way they do. If we’d lost, though, they’d have had a different view of us and we’d be talking about a different future now. And that all comes down to one result.
Do you remember your first World Cup?
In 2002… yes, of course. I remember our preparations in Japan, in Gotemba, and then in Korea too: the friendly matches and going to Singapore for a friendly. I’ve got some very nice memories. And obviously I had the chance to play for 45 minutes, when the team were losing 3-0 to Senegal in the first half. It was our last match in the group and our chances of going through were pretty slim, even more so with that result. So I came on at a difficult time and in a position that I’m not used to, on the right side of midfield. We got the first goal and then I scored what I have to say was a great goal, one of the best of my international career. Then we got the equaliser. I went close with another chance before that, and we almost scored in the closing seconds, but out we went. We so very nearly made it to the next round. Despite the result, I have to say it was a great experience on a personal level, as it was my first time with the national side and it came at the World Cup, too.
You’ve played for big clubs throughout your whole career, but is it true that the atmosphere and the pressure experienced at a World Cup are something else entirely?
It’s your country, it’s everything. Nowadays things are changing and there are other important tournaments, too – but obviously the World Cup is the World Cup. It’s what the whole world is waiting for, what you dreamed about as a child: playing for your national team, singing the national anthem. You used to experience it as a fan, so you know what the supporters are going through in those moments before a game. They’re things you saw as a kid and dreamed about. It’s where the best players are and where they’re ready to give their best; where they dream of bringing joy to their family, their friends, the people they know, the people back home. It’s the most important event on the planet.
When you speak, you give every impression of having all the ingredients required to make a good coach. Is that something you’re considering?
Nowadays yes, a little more. To be honest, I’d love to work as a duo with my brother. He played football too, as a defender, and my dad was a player, too. We’re a very close family as a whole and of course the three of us – my dad, my brother and I – are always going on about football. They were both defenders and I’m a striker, so we could get a good team going. My brother’s doing the coaching course already and I think I’ll get started any time now. Later we’ll see. We’ll have to see how things turn out, but I enjoy watching, listening, asking questions and being with coaches and other colleagues. I know that I’ll do something that’s linked to football.