Diego Forlan writes a weekly column for The National, appearing each Friday. The former Manchester United, Inter Milan and Atletico Madrid striker has been the top scorer in Europe twice and won the Golden Boot at the 2010 World Cup. Forlan’s column will be written with the assistance of European football correspondent Andy Mitten.
In football, the mood changes like the weather. One bad result can change everything, one positive win can change it back. At Penarol, we have been going well in the league but not had a happy month in the Copa Libertadores. March 2016, though, will be remembered as the month Penarol moved to our new stadium, the Estadio Campeon del Siglo (the Champion of the Century stadium).
It has been a long time coming. People have been talking of Penarol needing a new home for years. It has taken two years building, but we finally played our first game there this week, a friendly in front of 37,000 against River Plate — the giants from across the river of the same name in Argentina.
It was a fantastic experience and I am delighted to say that I scored the first goal in the new stadium as we won 4-1. The stadium was opened by Uruguay’s president Tabarez Vazquez and I hope he didn’t think too badly of me taking my shirt off to celebrate my goal in front of the fans behind the goal. It really meant that much to me, as a lifelong Penarol fan, to score that goal.
The stadium is much more intimate than the Centenario, the old stadium in Montevideo which hosted the first World Cup in 1930. Uruguayans love the Centenario. It is big with 60,000 seats, but the stands are far from the pitch and it is showing its age. Maybe it will be remodelled should Uruguay host the 2030 World Cup finals on the stadium’s 100th anniversary.
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Our new stadium, which is in Penarol colours, feels like home, like it is ours. It holds 40,000 and the stands are close to the pitch. The atmosphere is already superb, with all that crazy noise for which South American football fans are famous.
That night sealed a happy week for I also took my son Martin to the beach for the first time, a great pleasure. He is only six weeks old, but I think he is looking like a No 9!
I also watched Uruguay rise to joint top of the qualifiers for the 2018 World Cup finals after drawing with Brazil away and beating Peru at home. Uruguay have a fine side and you need to be very strong to progress from the South American group.
International friendly games were played in the rest of the world, with the European countries doing their final preparation ahead of the European championships in France.
England fans will be rightly happy that they beat world champions Germany away, especially coming from 2-0 down to win 3-2. England is a great football country with the best league in the world, but the national team have been average for too long. I was surprised at just how average after beating them in Sao Paulo in the 2014 World Cup finals. But England have some exciting young players like Harry Kane and Dele Alli.
The win in Berlin will lift confidence, but fans shouldn’t get too carried away. I played in many international friendlies and you cannot pretend they are the same as competitive games. They matter — and my total caps and goals include friendlies — but you always play more carefully in friendlies. By that, I mean you are more cautious not to get injured. You still want to win and you are proud to represent your country, but in my case I would not go for a 50/50 challenge with the same intention as in a big competitive match, not that a forward is asked to make a 50/50 as much as a midfielder. You would always have the words of your club coach ringing in your ears: ‘Don’t come back to this club injured!’
Every club coach I have worked under has been against international friendlies. They understand why they happen, but they do not want to lose their best players to injury. Clubs pay players a lot of money and they do not want to lose them either.
Alex Ferguson used to tell me to be careful and coaches have even asked me to pull out (I never did) or reduce my minutes for my country, but I think they also understand that international managers need to try different players and need friendlies. They cannot just give a debut to a player in a big competitive game.
Friendlies are perfect for players to get to know each other, to play with each other and for young players to show what they can do in the colours of their country. I gave 100 per cent in my first games for Uruguay because I was desperate to prove myself. Once established, I do not think our coach Oscar Tabarez wanted me to get injured in a friendly game.
But there is a time and a place for them. I did not think it was a good idea when Fifa introduced a date for international games in August and I know managers feel the same.
In Europe, August is an important month for building fitness and you are better being at your club and getting a full pre-season, but there will always be people pushing for their own interests, the clubs and the countries who both want more time with their players.
I am happy that I did both for so long, happy also that I am now just a club man who can concentrate playing for Penarol in our splendid new home.
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