A Sad End For Former Atletico Hero, Forlan

He was the first Atletico Madrid player to win the European Golden Boot, almost single-handedly taking the club into the Champions League with 32 goals in 33 games - the highest figure for a rojiblanco in 20 years - while also providing 10 assists in 2008-2009. It was his second Golden Boot with two different clubs. In his first three seasons at Atletico, his average match-day rating, according to the newspaper AS, has made him the league's fifth, first and ninth best player. No wonder the Calderon rang out to chants of  "¡Uruguayo! ¡Uruguayo!"

This time last year, he scored two goals in the Europa League final, ending a 14-year wait for a trophy at the club and finally bringing to a close the longest drought Atletico had suffered since before the Spanish Civil War. Only a final defeat against Sevilla prevented Atletico from adding a Copa del Rey success, too. He then took his country, Uruguay, to the semifinal of the World Cup, its best finish in more than half a century. He was joint top scorer at the tournament, a crossbar preventing him from winning the award on his own, and was voted winner of FIFA's Golden Ball as the tournament's MVP.

And he began this season as a candidate for the Balon d'Or - the world's best player for 2010.

Now, Diego Forlan can't get a game. And when he can, he wishes he couldn't. He certainly can't get a goal. Now, the Calderon whistles and boos when a substitution involves him. Not because he is coming off, but because he is coming on. Now his teammates don't pass to him and his coach doesn't want him. Meanwhile, his club is not fighting to keep him; it is fighting to find someone who will pay for him, someone to take him off its hands. In the winter, it tried to nudge him toward the exit door; unless something changes dramatically, in the summer, he will finally go through it.

On Tuesday night, Atletico Madrid faced Racing Santander. Diego Costa, Atletico's first-choice striker alongside Sergio Aguero in recent weeks, was injured. But rather than call upon Forlan, coach Quique Sanchez Flores chose to alter his system and move Jose Antonio Reyes from the wing to behind the striker. It has come to this.

The decision hinted a something deeper, something darker. So, too, did Sanchez Flores' postgame reaction. Forlan did eventually come on in the 57th minute, but the decision felt like an act in point-proving as much as it did an attempt to rescue the match. Forlan was uninterested, unable to change the game. Sanchez Flores seemed almost relieved by that fact.

"It's not my job to criticize a player, that is your job," he said, loading journalists' guns with a fresh round of ammunition. "He played 35, 40 minutes and you all saw it."

They certainly did. But that was not all they saw.

Underlying it all was Forlan's refusal to quash rumors of a departure. Impeccably polite, always willing to answer the inevitable questions, he was a victim of his own honesty. There was no kissing the badge here, no footballing hypocrisy. Forlan would admit that he would go elsewhere if the deal was right for him and the club.

An interview with Reuters earlier this year was dismissed in the typical way - a rather transparent attempt to suggest that his remarks had been lost in translation - but it put a lot of noses out of joint. Forlan was accused of not wanting to stay. It was not the most politically sensitive of moves. And, earning €7 million a year (€4.5M after taxes), nor was it easy to find a buyer. The inevitable, facile accusation was leveled at him, sometimes with astonishing aggressiveness: He was a mercenary who cared little for the club.

In February, the newspaper El Pais published a story in which it said that a number of Forlan's teammates were refusing to pass him the ball. Sources in the coaching staff had noted this worrying trend and the phrase that summed it up was simple: "ni un balon a la rubia." Not one ball to blondie. Blondie, la rubia, was used in the feminine form, adding another layer of insult. Naturally, everyone denied it, but an analysis from AS did suggest he was receiving the ball less than before (a phenomenon that can, of course, have many explanations). And then when Antonio Reyes was asked directly if the players called Forlan la rubia, his embarrassed giggle gave the game away. Something was up.

It was not just the players. A clash over a long journey to play for Uruguay brought simmering tension between Sanchez Flores and Forlan to the surface, too. Both men have sought to publicly insist that their relationship is "normal," but they have talked only in professional terms. There is an evident coldness. And besides, it no longer looks so normal. In fact, personal clashes appear to be having a professional impact. The half-hearted claims of club president Enrique Cerezo - a man whose every word is taken with a huge pinch of salt - have done little to calm to the environment or end the questions.

The coach has laid the blame squarely at Forlan's door. Although he was always polite, there was a pointedness to much of what he said. Phrases like Forlan "is in a rut"; "if he was 100 percent, he would play"; and "he knows that this has not been his best season" seemed a long way from the words of coach trying to rehabilitate a struggling player - even if they were mainly accurate.

Accusations are now flying that Sanchez Flores is leaving Forlan out because of his personal agenda rather than a professional one. A coach with a tendency to take the populist route, even some of his most trenchant defenders are questioning him now. Other accusations, some of them bitter, have been leveled against Forlan. He, and they, know that many have been fueled from within the club. The relationship now looks to be beyond repair. Not just with Forlan, but throughout the club. The cracks were temporarily papered over by success, but once again, there is division -- at almost all levels.

At the end of the season, the coach is likely to leave. But that will change nothing. Forlan will go, too. His destination is unknown, but he could head back across the Atlantic, this time to Brazil. He has scored more than 100 goals for Atletico Madrid, including the two against Fulham this time last year. His contribution has been gigantic but, sadly, now it appears to matter little. Memories are short, gratitude fleeting. It is as if nothing good ever happened, as if those joyous celebrations have been erased from the collective conscience. As if they would erase Forlan, too. It is a great pity; it should not end this way.

Ten months ago, he was named the World Cup's best player. Now, he's rarely even named among Atletico's best 11. A historic club waited 14 years for success and less than one to forget it again. Rather than depart a hero, Diego Forlan looks set to leave through the back door.

Source: AS, Reuters, El Pais

Related Articles:
World Cup 2010: The Post Mortem
World Cup 2010 : And The Award Goes To...
Forlan: Uruguay's Adventures In South Africa

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