By Ben Lyttleton
July 04, 2010

Uruguay forward Diego Forlan was 23 when made his first World Cup finals appearance in 2002, coming off the bench with his team 3-0 down to Senegal and scoring a superb long-range goal to help secure a 3-3 draw. That was Uruguay's final game and it was eliminated at the group stage.

His strike partner in this tournament, Luis Suarez is also 23. He scored the match-winner in the Group A decider against Mexico and two goals in the 2-1 win over South Korea in the Round of 16. His most decisive moment, though, came after 119 minutes of the quarterfinal against Ghana, when he handled Dominic Adiyah's goalbound header and was sent off. Ghana went on to miss the penalty and lose the subsequent penalty shootout.

Between them, Forlan and Suarez have scored six of the team's seven goals in helping Uruguay reach the World Cup semifinals for the first time since 1970. The pair shared an embrace after the final whistle against Ghana: relief giving way to joy, the fact that Suarez would miss the semifinal against Holland barely registering.

Whether his foul was instinctive or premeditated, whether Suarez a hero or a cheat, it was a risk worth taking: he sacrificed himself for the chance, albeit an unlikely one, of his team winning. He put his team first. It has not always been like that for Suarez, a prolific striker for whom goals have always been the least of his problems.

"I had a really hard time growing up," Suarez told La Nacion, reflecting on an upbringing in which his mother was the sole carer for seven brothers. As a teenager, Suarez was more interested in drinking and partying until, at 14, his youth team coach gave him an ultimatum: "Either you train like your team-mates or I will never pick you again."

Suarez buckled down and, after one season at Nacional, in 2006 he earned a move to Groningen in Holland, where his discipline problems spilled over onto the pitch. In January 2007, he received three yellow cards and one red card in a five-game spell, in which he also scored four goals. It was typical Suarez. One month later, he was sent off on his Uruguay debut.

He moved to Ajax the following season, continuing to deliver goals and trouble in equal measure. Ajax had to suspend him for a halftime punch-up with teammate Albert Luque over a free-kick routine that went wrong. "He is unpredictable and hard to influence, but that makes him special too," said his former Ajax boss Marco van Basten. Under Ajax's new coach Martin Jol, Suarez improved his self-discipline and the rewards were handsome: 49 goals in 48 appearances last season, among them six hat-tricks (which included three four-goal hauls and one six-goal haul). Suarez came into the World Cup as a potential target for big clubs, with the caveat that scoring in Holland is not always a guarantee of success: for every Ruud van Nistelrooy, there is a Mateja Kezman. But now he can expect a big move soon.

Forlan, on the other hand, had joined Manchester United six months before the 2002 World Cup. He only scored 10 league goals in three-and-a-half seasons there, but before then he was fearing for his future, and wondering if he had made the right decision, at 16, to turn down a career as a professional tennis player.

Forlan's father Pablo was a right winger for Uruguayan giants Penarol and Sao Paulo, and played for Uruguay in the 1966 and 1974 World Cups. Forlan's grandfather, Juan Carlos Corazzo, played for Argentine club Independiente in the 1930s, as did uncles Jose Pastoriza and Ricardo Bochini. It was therefore a matter of family pride that Diego should cultivate good habits. "My dad made me practice and always instructed me to use both my feet, even though I didn't like doing that. Now I appreciate it," Forlan once said to reporters.

Pastoriza recommended that Independiente take a look at Forlan when he was 17, by which stage he had got used to travelling alone and spending time away from his family. "I had played for a while before Independiente," Forlan explained. "I was in the Penarol reserves and also spent a year with another Uruguayan side, Danubio. I'll never forget living alone in a room in the club's hotel when I first arrived. I was used to being a long way from home as I had spent time in Nancy in France. It was very difficult then as I didn't speak the language and the lifestyle was different. I missed my friends and family."

He impressed at Independiente but it was a slow rather than spectacular progression. "We looked at his skills and it only took 10 minutes to see that he had the talent to be a great player," said youth coach Jorge Rodriguez. "I immediately said he should stay. We couldn't let him go. He was the full ticket."

But he was stuck with the youth team, playing in Argentina's fourth division, until reserve coach Raul Gordillo stepped in. "He took me out of the youth side and I never went back to the lower divisions," Forlan remembered. It was the coach of Argentina's 1978 World Cup-winning side, Cesar Luis Menotti, who eventually handed Forlan a first-team place in 1998. Forlan thought that was it. He was 19, and finally he had made it. But it was not to be. He returned from the Youth World Cup in Nigeria, where Uruguay finished fourth, and expected a run in the side. "I thought I'd get a chance in the first division. I wanted to get a few games as a substitute, at least."

Instead, Forlan was sent back to the reserves as Menotti wanted to free up one of the precious foreign berths. "I wasn't talking very much with the boss. He preferred the others. Maybe he didn't like the way I played." It was only when Enzo Trossero replaced Menotti that Forlan was allowed to shine. "I changed his position," said Trossero, who went on to coach the Switzerland national team. "I made him play on the left of midfield rather than up front as he was quick up and down the flanks. He is fast and can use both feet equally well."

"At first I thought I was too young to play there and my ambition was just to score goals, but I was happy to do what I was told," said Forlan. "I just wanted to play football." And that's what he did: given confidence by Trossero, he hit 18 goals in 36 games in 2000-01 and 12 in 18 in late-2001 before moving to United in January 2002.

That period was crucial to his development as an all-round player: at his current club Atletico Madrid, Forlan spent part of last season playing in midfield while in Uruguay's recent games, he has played center forward (against France), deep-lying playmaker (against South Africa) and left wing (against South Korea).

After he left England, his career took off again: at Villarreal, he won the Pichichi award for La Liga's top scorer and helped the side reach the Champions League semi-finals; at current club Atletico, he was Pichichi again in 2009, and last season scored the winning goal in the Europa League final for the club's first major trophy in 14 years. His performances in South Africa have sealed his status as one of the world's best players.

World Cup goals at 23, successful moves to Europe and lots and lots of goals: if Forlan is Uruguay's present, Suarez represents its future. The pair can only hope that they will be reunited in attack in the World Cup final next Sunday.

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