A storied career saw Diego Forlan move from Argentina to Manchester United in 2002 and, despite becoming a cult hero at Old Trafford, his calling came in LaLiga Santander, where he won the Pichichi Trophy with both Villarreal and Atletico Madrid.
Three seasons with the Yellow Submarine saw Forlan reach double figures each season in terms of goals, with Villarreal going on a famous run to the Champions League semi-finals in 2006, taking Arsenal all the way and almost doing the impossible, but for the reactions of Jens Lehmann.
Atletico Madrid came calling and a brilliant 2010 campaign made Forlan a Europa League and UEFA Super Cup winner, with 28 goals in all competitions that season.
Two of those came in the Europa League final to ensure a famous win over Fulham and Atletico‘s first European trophy since the 1962 Cup Winners’ Cup.
In collaboration with Enterprise Rent-A-Car, Diego Forlans spoke exclusively with MARCA and described what it was like on that night in Hamburg, as well as his uncanny knack of scoring against Liverpool.
Q: Looking at the Europa League, you won it with Atletico Madrid in 2010 and scored two goals in the final, but what was your best memory of that Europa League campaign, aside from the final?
First of all, we were in the Champions League and we dropped down [to the Europa League] because we didn’t qualify from the group stage. So, we finished third and went straight to the Europa League and started with Galatasaray, then we played Sporting CP, Valencia, Liverpool and then Fulham in the final. All the games were tough and I remember that the team was defensively good but was more attacking minded, with Kun [Aguero], Simao [Sabrosa] and [Jose Antonio] Reyes. The team was strong up front and when we got the chances we could score goals, so we were good.
We weren’t beating teams at home like 3-0, we drew some of them or won 1-0. But then we knew that we had a chance because we always played at home first, apart from [when we played] Valencia. So we knew that scoring a goal away from home was going to be a big difference, because we knew that we would have chances to score goals and that’s what happened, against Sporting, Galatasaray and also Liverpool. I was playing on my own up front. And then when we went to Anfield it was a tough game, they scored, then they scored a second goal, but even when they scored that goal, the second, I knew inside [my head] that we only needed to score one goal to qualify, and then I had the chance to score [and did] and we went to the final.
Q: And what was it like scoring the two goals in the final for Atletico and getting the goal right at the end of extra time to win it?
It was a dream come true. When you are a kid and you watch games – I remember watching World Cups, European Cups, South American cups, any big games – you always try to replicate everything in your garden or on the street, playing with your friends, and you repeat everything that happened on the TV. Having the opportunity to be in the final and be part of a great evening… the atmosphere was awesome. A lot of people – Fulham fans, Atletico Madrid fans – as these were two teams at that time that were used to being in finals like that, so the atmosphere was great. And it was a tough game.
We started winning, then they levelled and then I think we deserved a little bit more, but I didn’t want to go to a penalty shootout, because it doesn’t matter how you played during the game, over 120 minutes, because with penalties maybe you have good day and you lose, and then everything you deserved in the game doesn’t matter because you lost in the shootout. So at the end of the game there was a great move from us and Kun crossed the ball and I had the chance to get a touch, flick it [goalbound] and then scored the goal – and [it] was in the 116th minute, at the end of the game, so it was great.
Q: Looking at the semi-finals this season, Manchester United are back there. And this time they’ve got Ole Gunnar Solskjaer as the coach. Obviously you shared a dressing room with him for a short period of time. What is he like?
I had the opportunity to be with him for two-and-a-half years. He is a great guy, very professional, a very nice guy. Everything you see about him is everything he is. He’s very calm and, of course, he can get angry like everybody can, but he has a calm personality. He likes to study a lot and likes to work hard. When we were together on the bench, we were always talking about the defenders [and] what we needed to do if we got on the pitch. He was always analysing everything that was happening during the game; he wasn’t only watching the game, he was trying to see where he can get into a position to score a goal, to take advantage once he gets the chance to come on. He’s a very honest guy, a family man and also very calm.
Q: You worked under Sir Alex Ferguson. Can you see any traits of him in Solskjaer?
Everybody takes a little bit from every coach you had, some of the good ones and also the bad, and things that you don’t like as well. I think maybe they talk to each other a lot. I’m not saying every day, but he has that opportunity [to do so]. You know, [Solskjaer] is a very lovable guy and he also has a good relationship with Sir Alex and with the fans, with the people and also with all ex-players that were at United, so I think he’s a good manager for Manchester United. And he’s getting time, which is really important as well. I don’t know him as a coach, but maybe he has taken some things from Sir Alex.
Q: You weren’t the most prolific for Manchester United, but the fans still look back at your time at the club with a fondness, mainly due to the double you scored against Liverpool. What was it like to be a Manchester United player and score two goals against Liverpool?
Sometimes I think it’s more about the press. If you look at the minutes I played with Manchester United and the goals I scored, my average is the is the average that I had during my whole career. I scored really important goals, some really key ones during the season we won the Premier League title, and in that season there were those two goals I scored against Liverpool at Anfield, which was really, really nice, memorable. Even now it’s funny because, I’m not saying every game, but once every year, sometimes they start singing the song, and after so many years they still sing that song. It’s really special.
Q: After United you went to Villarreal and were unstoppable in front of goal, winning the Pichchi and the European Golden Boot. What changed for you to help you increase your tally?
I was more mature, more experienced and I also had the chance to play every game, which is a big difference. At United there were so many good players and sometimes I got the chance to play two games, and then I wouldn’t play for another two or three games afterwards, so to get the rhythm back isn’t that easy. Once I arrived at Villarreal, with the experience of being at a great club like Manchester United, everything was a lot smoother, so I think that’s the reason.
Q: You were at Villarreal during that one of the greatest periods, if not the greatest period, in the club’s history. Looking at the Champions League semi-final against Arsenal, playing for such a small team, what was it like during that time?
It was really nice, it’s different. At that moment, Villarreal were more a local team and they were getting a little bit more widely known, also [by having] so many South American players. And the team was doing well, scoring goals, playing well, away and at home, and then in the Champions League every game was a great atmosphere. I remember the time that we played against Arsenal, in the second leg, the fans, as [happened] against Inter, were all waiting for us when we arrived in the city. The bus was surrounded by people walking with us to the stadium. It was all yellow, unbelievable, with all the fans with us singing their songs.
Q: And obviously there’s another semi-final between Arsenal and Villarreal again, this time in the Europa League. Do you think Villarreal may see this as a chance for revenge?
Yeah, maybe for the fans, not so much for the players now because they are not the ones that played [in the previous semi-final]. It will be two nice games, though. It would have been better with the fans [there], but it’s still going to be interesting. Both teams play really good football, I’m going to support Villarreal of course, but both of the teams, with Unai [Emery] and also with [Mikel] Arteta, have always played really good football. So I think it’s going to be a really interesting game. Who’s going to win? It’s difficult to say, but both of them have really good, good players.
Q: And what about Villarreal vs Manchester United in the final? Who would you support then?
I don’t know. It’s tough, I like both of them. I would be happy whoever wins, and it depends on who’s going to be better [team] on the day, so I’m not going to choose one.
Q: You were part Uruguay’s 2011-winning Copa America team, which was the country’s first trophy since 1995. What was that like?
You grow up watching the great players from Uruguay, winning trophies, playing for the national team, playing in the Copa America and winning it in 1987 and also in in 1995. The Uruguayan national team has won the most Copa America trophies. In my family, my grandfather, my mother’s father, won the Copa America twice; my father won it once; and I won another one. So that [means] we are the only family in the world that has four international trophies. Imagine how special that final was for us and that trophy, but also [achieving it] the national team.
When you were growing up, and you were playing in the street with your friends, you always dreamed of winning something with the national team. Maybe you dreamed of playing in [the Estadio] Centenario and also singing the [national] anthem; that was something that you always dream of. Then, if you had the opportunity to win a trophy, it would have been much better, and I had that opportunity. And as I said, it was very special.
Q: What was your biggest achievement or your greatest achievement over your career?
There are many things. Of course the Copa America was one of those, though you have a lot of pressure sometimes as a footballer when everybody is hoping for you to be the key player of the national team. When we went to the 2011 [Copa America], everybody was expecting me to be that key player and I did really well, so for me was a great achievement, because it’s not that easy when everybody is expecting you to do well and you end up doing better than well. For me that was something special and something that I was really proud of. I’m very, very happy [about winning that Copa America].
Q: You have now moved into coaching, so who are your biggest influences?
I have my own way of doing things and of course I had the experience of playing for so many years and all around the world in different cultures, something that was good for me. You have to be yourself, you have to be honest, you have to talk to the players, but it depends the way you want to do it, and then [you need to] try to get the players to do what they can do. Sometimes there are players that maybe you want to play a certain style of football, and maybe you don’t have the opportunity [to get] them or you don’t have the type of [budget] to do that.
As a coach, you have to see if the team you have or the players you have can do it. There’s so many things that you have to see and to understand. It’s not only ‘I want to play this player here’ or maybe ‘I want to coach in this way’. Sometimes it’s more psychological, or maybe talking to the players or trying to fix other things, also in training. It’s something that you have to really hone in on. And it’s something that I really, really like.
Q: Do you have a style that you want to implement or are more flexible?
I would love to have good possession with the ball, to create from box to box. I try to [implement this style], and now I’m coaching a second division team here [in Uruguay], Atenas de San Carlos. We haven’t started the league at the moment, but we’re working really hard trying to make the players understand the way I want them to keep the ball, why we are doing it and when we have to do it.
Q: Would you come back to Europe as a coach?
It depends on the offers. Now, I’m really happy here. This is my second team. At Penarol had a really short period of time coaching. But I arrived here one month ago and I’m really happy. It’s very nice project, they want the team to get into the first division. We have a really good competitive team, with good players having come in. It’s a nice part of Uruguay and isn’t far from Montevideo, so I can go back and forth from there and still be close to my family, learn, get more experience as a coach and maybe if I do well and offers come, I will decide if it’s good for me to go wherever the offer is.
Q: You only spent one season at Inter, less than a year. So what was your experience like in Italy? And why was it so short?
I really had a really good time there, but as a professional I didn’t have the opportunity to play. I was injured a lot. And then I had the chance to go to Internacional, which was a good offer [and] was also near my home and my family. I was [also] starting a relationship with my wife.
I think I thought that was a good moment for me to go to Brazil and be close to my country. I had played for almost 12 years in Europe, so it was a good time to change direction and go back to South America. And yeah, I don’t regret it. That’s why I didn’t stay Europe, because sometimes you have to decide about things in life and as professional it was good for me as well. It was 2012 and the World Cup in 2014 was in Brazil, but it also was good for me too, to continue with my relationship [with my current wife] because maybe if I started my relationship and I was living in Europe, maybe it would have been different and perhaps I wouldn’t have the family that I have now, with my kids and everything.
So it wasn’t an easy decision for me to go back to South America as I had many offers to stay in Italy and also from clubs in Spain and England. I thought that that was a good time for me prioritise other things. It was good as a professional as well, as I continued playing and the contract was really good. For my future as a family man, I think it was the right time to make that change.
MARCA spoke to Diego Forlan courtesy of Enterprise Rent-a-Car. For more information around their UEFA Europa League sponsorship please visit www.enterprise.es/uel