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 Atlético had suffered since before the Spanish Civil War. Only a final defeat against Sevilla prevented Atlético 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 Balón d'Or -- the world's best player for 2010.
Now, Diego Forlán can't get a game. And when he can, he wishes he couldn't. He certainly can't get a goal. Now, the Calderón 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, Atlético Madrid faced Racing Santander. Diego Costa, Atlético's first-choice striker alongside Sergio Aguero in recent weeks, was injured. But rather than call upon Forlán, coach Quique Sánchez Flores chose to alter his system and move José 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 Sánchez Flores' postgame reaction. Forlán 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. Forlán was uninterested, unable to change the game. Sánchez 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.
This has been a desperate season for Forlán. He has scored just eight league goals and only two since the turn of the year. They have not been especially big goals either -- he has scored against Sporting Gijón, Athletic Bilbao, Osasuna, Real Sociedad, Mallorca and Villarreal. His shooting has been wild and unpredictable. His body language has been sadly telling: The man who dragged his team to the Champions League has struck a sad figure. There has been little of the dynamism or determination there was then. His former coach Abel Resino, noting Forlán's ability to inspire and lead by example, once called him "contagious." Now, it appears his teammates are acting as if he really is. His teammates and his coach.
Looking back, it is possible to see the roots of this breakdown in that seemingly glorious moment. Forlán's seriousness, his refusal to suffer fools, his powerful drive, has long meant that his relationship with other players is slightly problematic. Resino, Atlético's coach at the back end of 2008-2009 and the first seven weeks of the following season, held him up as an "example" to others to follow. Yet even Resino would privately admit that Forlán could be "difficult."
Soccer players can be childish and tribal, jealous and sensitive, and that status as a kind of teacher's pet rubbed one or two the wrong way. In victory, it mattered little; in defeat, it was always a problem in waiting. At the end of last season, Forlán's relationship with players and, notably, with coach Quique Sánchez Flores was difficult. But he was scoring. Bit by bit, though, his performances were being undermined. And when he stopped scoring, the conflict came into the open.
Forlán began this season with ankle problems. He also appeared to begin it with an anxiety to capitalize on his World Cup success to push his candidacy for the Balón d'Or. A good two months with his club would strengthen his hand. Some teammates certainly suspected that was on his mind and they were not so keen. Why, they wondered, should they help him? Shouldn't, they asked, the commitment be the other way around?
As far as the fans were concerned, there were other problems. Forlán's relationship with them had always been precarious; even at the moments of greatest admiration and gratitude for his colossal contribution, even when they roared his name, there was not the warmth there had been for others. On one occasion, he had responded to fans getting on his back by celebrating a goal with an screaming outburst of vindication.
Underlying it all was Forlán'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. Forlán 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. Forlán was accused of not wanting to stay. It was not the most politically sensitive of moves. And, earning €7 million ($10.1M) a year (€4.5M/$6.5M 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 País published a story in which it said that a number of Forlán'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 balón 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 José Antonio Reyes was asked directly if the players called Forlán 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 Sánchez Flores and Forlán 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 halfhearted 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 Forlán's door. Although he was always polite, there was a pointedness to much of what he said. Phrases like Forlán "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 Forlán 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 Forlán. He, and they, know that many have been fueled from within the club. The relationship now looks to be beyond repair. Not just with Forlán, 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. Forlán 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 Atlético 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 Forlán, 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 Atlético'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 Forlán looks set to leave through the back door.