Perhaps Diego Forlán just really liked being on strike. No sooner had Spain’s footballers put down their placards and returned to the hard graft of booting a ball around a rectangle of turf, than the Atlético Madrid striker found himself settling into a seat aboard Iberia flight 3626, bound for another country where top-flight football has been put on hold. Italy’s new Serie A season should have begun on Saturday, but instead lost its first round of games to industrial action.
Forlán, of course, won’t really be putting his feet up upon signing for Internazionale, but instead jetting straight off to join his team-mates from the Uruguayan national side for their friendly against Ukraine. He will do so with a fresh spring in his step. This transfer has been on the cards from the moment it became clear that Samuel Eto’o would be leaving Inter for Anzhi, but the longer negotiations dragged on over wages and back payments owed by Atlético, the greater the risk of someone pulling the plug.
For the last year the striker had made no secret of the fact he was ready to move on. Relations with the board had never truly recovered after a protracted contract renegotiation in 2009, when Forlán, fresh from scoring 32 league goals and claiming Europe’s Golden Shoe, felt the club should have been quicker to meet his demands. But now there were reports of rifts with his team-mates too. In February El País claimed several had stopped passing to him. A member of backroom staff cited a whispering campaign: “not one pass to Blondie”.
Blondie, in turn, refused to disguise his feelings. Invited at a certain point to kiss the badge in a show of devotion, Forlán would, rather admirably, decline. “I’m not an Atlético fan, so it seems a lack of respect,” he said. The supporters, in turn, disrespected him vocally when he took to the field.
Little wonder, then, that he should cut a relieved figure as he chatted with Gazzetta dello Sport’s Filippo Ricci on the flight to Milan, playing to his new audience as he recalled persuading his mother to let him study at the Italian school in Montevideo because “the most beautiful girls” went there. At 32 Forlán’s hopes of winning the Balon d’Or – a goal that seemed possible in the heady days after Uruguay’s fourth-place finish at the 2010 World Cup – may have faded, but Inter offer him a better opportunity than most clubs could to add a few more winners’ medals to his collection.
Forlán told Ricci he had been pleased by Gian Piero Gasperini’s comments in an interview a day earlier, when the manager had rejected the suggestion that Inter’s squad was too old, insisting that “Players of 30-31 years old can be at their peak in terms of physical conditioning”. The Inter manager had been referring at the time to players already in the Inter squad, but Forlán was nevertheless encouraged. “Plus in my family we all come across younger than we are,” he noted.
Certainly Forlán remains quite the physical specimen: lean but powerful, with a stomach so defined that it appears not so much as a six-pack but a collection of half a dozen individual muscles battling for supremacy of the abdomen. But muscles don’t score goals, and on some level Forlán must know that the challenge he faces is a daunting one. He, after all, is the man who arrived in place of Eto’o.
If it goes without saying that Forlán is no like-for-like replacement – his playing style dramatically different from that of the Cameroonian – then it is also inevitable that comparisons will be drawn. Eto’o accounted for 37 Inter goals last season in all competitions. That hole requires filling. Between injuries and alienation from his team, Forlán managed just 10 last season, but Inter would not have signed him if they did not believe that he could rediscover the form that saw him score 28 the year before.
The burden will be shared with Giampaolo Pazzini, the man who scored 11 goals in 17 appearances following his arrival from Sampdoria in January, as well as Diego Milito, though it remains to be seen whether Gasperini can integrate all three plus Wesley Sneijder into his preferred 3-4-3. The owner Massimo Moratti made his feelings heard over the weekend when he stated that Pazzini “must play”, though it is Milito with whom Forlán has an existing relationship, having befriended the striker years ago playing alongside his brother Gabriel at Independiente.
It is not a conundrum that Gasperini had ever sought. “Honestly, I did not think Eto’o would leave; while I was in pre-season training I thought Sneijder would be the one to go,” he told Corriere della Sera shortly before news broke of Forlán’s capture. “I thought Eto’o, Milito, one of the wide players you were writing about joining us and I said ‘Crikey, what an attack I have’. Then these Russians showed up with their gigantic offer and you have to adapt.”
The same goes for Forlán: who will need to adjust quickly to a new country, to a new club, to a new set of fans. And, one would hope, to a set of team-mates who don’t mind passing the ball to Blondie.
Have a listen to James Sharman & Kristian Jack‘s Serie A chat with Paolo from today’s Tuesday Settimanale on THE FOOTY SHOW Podcast. Every Tuesday we talk all things Italy with him. We also chat with Arsenal GK legend Bob Wilson on today’s show.