I apologize in advance to all Manchester United fans, including, but not limited to, my brother, his son, Alex Ferguson, and the majority of the 79,005 people on the last day of July, 2003, who traipsed to the hateful Giants Stadium in Rutherford, New Jersey, to watch the Reds play Juventus in a pre-season friendly.
I apologize because I’m about to state that the best player in this South African World Cup—and the best player by far—is none other than Diego Forlan.
My hand doth shake to even type such a claim; I should probably drink deeply of some kind of poison, and thank god that’s not a dagger I see before me, otherwise I’d probably have to throw myself upon it. Diego Forlan, World Cup, best player—please god, no.
But it’s true. In a tournament that’s seen Wayne Rooney, Didier Drogba, Fernando Torres, Frank Ribery, Cristiano Ronaldo, and the entire Italian squad all fail to perform anywhere near their club-team best, one player has stood out so thoroughly that despite the cheating handball that denied Ghana a spot in the semi-finals, I was nonetheless cheered by the fact that we’d get to see more Diego. (Messi’s been pretty good too, but he’s playing in a better team that Diego’s Uruguay.)
Forlan’s barely put a foot wrong; his ability to find space in the hurly-burly of advanced midfield has been a masterclass of movement; and his finishing? Did you see that free kick yesterday against Ghana? What the hell did he do to that execrable Joetheplumberani ball? That thing swerved and changed position more than Joe Lieberman. Most other free kicks in this tournament have ended up in Rows W – Z, but the great (ugh!) Forlan marshaled its rugby-ball like physics and buried it. I’ve loved every second of every one of his performances.
Which brings me to July 31, 2003. 88 minutes gone, United cruising 4-1 against a good Juventus side (best player that day? Pavel Nedved, who, despite the score, scared the hell out of United every time he ran at them), and a lazy ball over the back of the Italian defense somehow caused the two Juve defenders and keeper to perform a comical Noh play, as in, ‘noh, after you… noh, noh, I insist.’ The result was a cock-up and Diego Forlan, the center forward for United, finding himself in front of the openest of open goals. I honestly think I would have scored, so easy was the chance. But the Italian defender, in trying to swipe Forlan’s hamstrings to mush, slightly put him off—and Forlan, the best player in the 2010 World Cup—shanked his shot into the side netting. I’m still not sure of the physics of what he did; he seemed to curve the shot into a different dimension of crap—let’s call it Forlan’s Constant.
And let me tell you: back then, for United at least, Forlan was constantly crap. Giants Stadium erupted in baffled laughter at the miss, but the diehard United fans in attendance didn’t find it all that funny. His nearly nine months of not scoring after he’d arrived in 2002 wasn’t the best gag we’d ever heard; his removal of his shirt after a goal, only to find he couldn’t get it back on his sweaty chest? Nope, not that comical, honestly, and by the summer of 2003 we were sick of him. He came to be seen as one of Ferguson’s worst signings, joining Veron (quarter-finalist in South Africa), Tim Howard (last 16), even Kleberson (Brazilian bench-warmer in South Africa, but still) in an all-star line up of former United players at this World Cup. The fact that your full backs in such a team would be the ancient Gabriel Heinze and Jonathon Spector doesn’t change the fact that being at United can sometimes bring out the worst in otherwise great players. Look at Forlan—from eight months of not scoring, via a legendary open goal miss in New York, to a semi-final in South Africa.
So I find myself looking forward to watching the rest of the tournament because Forlan’s still around? That Diego Forlan? What is the world (cup) coming to? At least he’s keeping his shirt on.