|ESPN.com: World Cup 2010||[Print without images]|
|Forlan's five goals -- most of them spectacular -- carried Uruguay to the final four.|
PORT ELIZABETH, South Africa -- If this was goodbye, it's hard to imagine it being any sweeter than the one Diego Forlan had at this World Cup.
After the game, strolling toward the team bus, Forlan was stopped by German legend Oliver Bierhoff, who knows what it feels like to peak at a big tournament. Bierhoff, a good bit taller, extended his hand. "Congratulations," he said in Spanish. Forlan smiled a wide smile and thanked him.
Yes, congratulations were in order. For Forlan had almost singlehandedly led the un-fancied Uruguayans to the semifinals, helping to beat out France, South Africa and Mexico for the top spot in Group A in the process, and then discarding South Korea and Ghana in the knockout rounds, notching four goals in the process, all of them stunning.
Against Germany in Saturday's consolation game, he scored once again -- putting him in the joint lead for top scorer -- a tally as sweet and precious as all of his earlier goals when he volleyed a chest-high cross to Hans-Jorg Butt's left, leaving the keeper without a prayer. In the last minute, he curled a free kick, which would have sent the game into extra time, onto the crossbar. When Forlan was on the ball, Uruguay seemed like a team with a chance; when he wasn't involved, its prospects were far more bleak.
No team at this World Cup leaned so heavily on the brilliant moments of a single player. Forlan was asked not only to score when it mattered -- and that he did, netting equalizers against Ghana and the Netherlands, a go-ahead goal against Germany and the first two goals against South Africa -- but to take every corner, every free kick and pelt the opposing goal from distance, too. All the while he had to ward off the wrath of opposing defenses who knew full well that stopping Forlan meant stopping Uruguay. He did all of those things to perfection, making him the indisputably most valuable player of this tournament, regardless of what happens in the final.
When asked if he was pleased with the tournament he'd turned in, Forlan typically deflected praise and talked up his team.
"I'm happy for the team," he said, shrugging his shoulders, his wet blond curls bobbing along. "I was looking at it game by game and just happy to be in between the best four teams in the world."
The question inevitably turns now to whether this will Forlan's last World Cup. He will be 35 in 2014, which could be past his expiration date.
His coach, Oscar Tabarez, was rather up front about the importance of Forlan sticking around during the postgame press conference: "For the Uruguay team, Forlan is a very important player. He is the top football player; he is a point of reference for us. We almost can't do without him, whatever we try."
The decision, Tabarez made very clear, is up to Forlan. "It will depend on what Diego Forlan has in his mind," he said. "I think, physically speaking, nothing will stop him. He takes care of his body very carefully and it all depends on what perspectives he has for himself for his football future and what ideas he has with the Uruguayan national team."
So does the man himself think this will be his last World Cup? "I don't have to think anything," he said. "I have to continue playing, continue enjoying the way I like playing football." And with that he winked and sauntered off into the misty, rainy night, leaving us wondering whether we'll ever see another player so valiantly carry his countrymen in the near future.
It's hard to imagine that Forlan will play as well or reach as far as he did here in South Africa if he does return. It's hard to remember anybody having such a big hand in a team's run to the final four. But having seen Forlan in action through the past month, one can't escape the feeling that, so long as Forlan is around, good things will continue to happen to the tiny nation of three million people and its soccer team.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.